5-year-old Ivan Mishukov, or Mishka, as his mother calls him, lives in a small, happy world that includes his mother, grandmother, and kindergarten in a tiny Russian village. He has learned his letters, can spell and read a little, enjoys the fairy tales his mother reads him every night, and thinks this is how life will be forever.
Everything changes when Grandma suddenly dies. Mother falls into a deep depression and spends hours weeping. She forgets to stand in line for bread, forgets to feed Mishka, and sleeps at any time of the day. She loses her job, spends nights at the bars, and brings home a man who initiates the final downfall of this once-happy family.
Little Mishka narrates this story in spare and matter-of-fact language that belies the horrific tragedy he has been flung into. When his mother is replaced by a red stain on the floor, the man hauls Mishka to the city to drop him off at an orphanage. Mishka has only his fairy tale book, a button from his mother's red coat, and the manners his grandmother taught him. Escaping the clutches of the orphanage representative, Mishka darts into a railway station, getting lost while looking for a woman in a red coat to take him home. Thus begins his new life, which becomes something of a fairy tale itself, as one of thousands of invisible children in Russia in the 1990s.
He learns street smarts from a group of homeless children who take him in: how to stay warm, how to steal, who to steal from, how to beg, and most importantly, how to avoid the police. He lives in the underground railway like thousands of other abandoned children, riding the trains and sleeping on heat grates, until one day his story takes a turn that sets him apart.
Unconscious under a bench one day, he is awakened by a friendly dog licking his face. Once they establish that neither means the other harm, the dog curls up next to him and sleeps. When evening descends, the dog nudges Mishka to follow him to an abondoned basement where a pack of dogs resides. They accept him into their family, and Mishka observes that dogs treat each other much better than humans do. They share any food they find, for instance, and protect each other.
Mishka leaves his life as a beggar with the other children for the safety of the wild dog pack, and through several seasons they hunt, play, sleep, and learn to communicate together. When Mishka reckons he must be 6 or 7, he spots himself in a mirror and is an unrecognizable figure of filth and matted hair. Word get around the city about a boy who travels with a pack of dogs, and it seems everyone wants to catch him, perhaps out of curiousity about this feral boy, perhaps with the very best of intentions to reintroduce him to civilized life. In any case, Mishka and his dogs are wary of humans and evade capture for many months.
A story of a little boy and his dogs could easily devolve into a sentimental bog, but Pyron never allows that to happen. Mishka's narrative lets the reader experience hard street life through the eyes of a 5-year-old, whose innocence lends pathos and punch. Although children as young as 11 could easily read this book, I recommend it to older readers, even adults, as well. An excellent book!
320 pages 978-0545399302 Ages 11 and up
Recommended by: Jane C. Behrens, Teacher Librarian, Iowa USA