Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Dogs of Winter, by Bobbie Pyron

When Bobbie Pyron's MG contemporary, A Dog's Way Home came out (well, sometime after it came out, to be precise), I talked about it here. Two weeks later, I had the great opportunity to interview Bobbie, here. This is Bobbie's latest MG novel, again about kids and dogs, The Dogs of Winter.

This book is fascinating on so many levels. First, it's based on a true story. It's not just that a five-year-old boy surviving Moscow winters (more than one of them) alone with a pack of dogs is riveting in itself. It's that, following the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, thousands of children were in this boy's shoes. Government support was suddenly gone, and children ranging in age from toddlers to teens lived on the streets, stealing, begging, smoking, drinking, forming gangs and worse, all in an often futile effort to survive and/or avoid what they saw as incarceration in orphanages. The book is also fascinating because of the effect of the dogs. Though this book cannot be called light, or even humorous in any way, the dogs definitely lift some of the bleakness.

Five-year-old Ivan, who remembers being called the pet name "Mishka" by his mother, is desperate to avoid capture, because he is sure his mother is looking for him and will not find him in such a place. Innocent and even na├»ve at first, he slowly realizes that his mother is not going to return, and worse, that that bloodstain he'd found in the apartment they'd shared with an abusive man likely means she is no longer alive. Tired of being battered, taunted, and forced to beg and turn over the money to an older child, one night he sleeps under a bench in the subway over a heat vent. He awakens and finds a dog next to him. Ivan quickly learns that the dogs share food with each other, unlike the people. When he hides some of the money he gets from begging and buys food for the pack of dogs, he not only earns their friendship, but they welcome him into the pack.

They live in dens, ride trains, forage for food, and in general use their wits and their bond to stay alive, one day at a time. While always remaining in Ivan's POV, we also come to realize that through the eyes of other people he is turning into a "dog boy." He communicates as the dogs do, in growls and barks, though he has not forgotten language entirely. As much as we root for Ivan, we know that a boy cannot continue to live with dogs. We also realize that if he had, we wouldn't know his story. I don't think it's that much of a spoiler if I give away that, yes, he doesn't stay with the dogs permanently.

If you need an example of a MG novel in which the MC is much younger than the readership age, this is one. While at times I think Ivan is unbelievably mature for five, this is in part countered by the fact that he's narrating the story at an older (though indefinite) age. And, of course, by the fact that this is, in its basic aspects, a true story.

NOT just for dog-lovers, The Dogs of Winter is recommended for readers MG and older who will not be overly sensitive to or disturbed by the harsh conditions.

16 comments:

Faith E. Hough said...

Wow, this sounds amazing. In one respect, it's hard to believe that things like that really happened...although I've heard plenty of stories from that time period and general setting that are even more horrifying. Definitely going to pick this up--thanks for the recommendation!

Ruth Schiffmann said...

This makes me think of a book I recently read called INTO THAT FOREST about two little girls that are "adopted" by tigers. Thanks for reviewing THE DOGS OF WINTER, Marcia. It's one I definitely want to read!

Vijaya said...

We just checked out A Dog's Way Home for the third time ... I'll have to put this one on hold too. I think we need to know the perspective (he'll live) from the very beginning, given the bleak circumstances.

I was ten or eleven when I read the diary of Anne Frank and cried bitter tears at the end of the epilogue. How could she die? It was my first exposure to the holocaust and I spent many hours asking God for answers. None came.

Jaye Robin Brown said...

Oh! Dogs and kids, my favorite combination. I need to read both of these!

Leandra Wallace said...

The stories where kids are holding out hope for lost parents are always tear-jerkers for me. Poor little guy!

Kelly Polark said...

This sounds like a really great read. Not only a book about dogs (which I love), but a book about overcoming hardship as well. Thanks for the recommendation!

Medeia Sharif said...

I'd love to read this, even if it's a bit tough to read.

Mirka Breen said...

What an unusual POV. I will check this out.

Marcia said...

Faith -- This book really opened my eyes to things I didn't realize. Political changes are always awful for somebody, it seems.

Ruth -- Tigers (cats) seems even more remarkable than dogs!

Vijaya -- I remember feeling, I guess, "haunted" by AF's death after having read her diary. She is only one, single example of what was lost.

Jaye -- I think you'll love them.

Leandra -- I so agree with that!

Kelly -- It's an important book, I think.

Medeia -- MG fiction is being allowed to get tougher, it seems.

Mirka -- It's well worth your time!

Bish Denham said...

Wow, sounds intense and very interesting. A book I know I'd like to read, particularly since it's based on a true story.

Janet said...

What a unique book.It sounds like a good one, I'll have to see if I can check it out.

Kelly Hashway said...

I like when books break out of the norm by having the character outside the target audience range.

Marcia said...

Bish -- It is both intense and interesting.

Janet -- If you can set a historical in a different time and place, you know you've got something unique.

Kelly -- I do too, but I think it's one of the riskier things writers can do.

Emily R. King said...

I enjoy books about survival. Great conflict.

Thanks for the rec!

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

This sounds like a great novel, Marcia. The fact that I love dogs probably doesn't hurt, either. Thank you for the recommendation.

Kim Van Sickler said...

Wow! What a great story. Gotta add it to my Goodreads queue.