Bobbie Pyron’s “The Dogs of Winter” is certainly one of those rare gems that produced in me a flux of emotions. And I am glad that the novel, based on a true story, will soon be released in paperback format on Aug. 26.
Pyron’s excellent research and literary skills will likely impress readers young and older. The novel is so memorable and engaging that it should be passed on to friends, parents, teachers, medical specialists, social workers and mental health counselors.
There are valuable lessons to learn- — lessons in survival, failure, triumph over failure, rational and irrational thought, patience, loving and hating, taking chances and struggling to adapt to new or strange environments.
From this novel, readers will be historically, philosophically and politically educated while at the same time they’ll think they are only being entertained by Pyron’s words, the power of her imagery and the care she devotes to her characters.
Set in post-Soviet Russiaduring the 1990s, Pyron’s novel is based on the life of Mishka Ivan Andreovich, a young boy, who, at age four, left his abusive home, or might have been sent away by his mother — it is uncertain the reason why he disappeared from home — only to end up on the streets of western Moscow.
In the author’s account, a mix of non-fiction and fiction, Ivan is treated badly by his mother’s cruel and alcoholic boyfriend.
One night an argument gets out of control, and the man supposedly kills Ivan’s mother, though the boy is finding it hard at first to accept the fact that he’ll never see his mother again.
Eventually young Ivan is delivered to an orphanage where he later escapes.
In real life, Ivan was only one of the millions of ‘invisible street children’ who had been abandoned, eventually finding himself and other children like him homeless, starving, sick and lonely, but somehow tough and courageous.
These children make up what Pyron refers to as the “backdrop to city life.”
In Pyron’s novel, Ivan begged for food at busy train stations and shops, and spent cold winter nights huddled on the train station’s marble floor, sometimes with other homeless children, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for the not-too-kind “militsiyas” and their shrill whistles.
But what sets Ivan apart from the other homeless children is how he relied on a pack of feral street dogs for his survival.
Later on in the book, readers might cringe when homeless, hungry people, now scavengers surrounding a garbage heap,confront Ivan and his dogs. With something so seemingly delicious right at their fingertips, they almost salivate, knowing there could be a meal of canines and maybe poor Ivan, too.
Because the Ivan in Pyron’s novel is imaginative, often drawing winged dogs soaring in the sky, evil witches of Russian folklore and detailed pictures of him and dogs at play in Russian meadows, the author brushes up on the subjects of Russian myths and fairy tales, thus providing readers the results of her research in her book.
Pyron’s writing is especially colorful and vivid in certain chapters. Other passages are quite sad, gloomy and disturbing.
However, she does allow some light to shine on Ivan when he romps through the meadows with his furry companions. An additional tribute to Pyron is that her readers quickly discover how Ivan, who was once prey and somewhat naive, suddenly turns predator out of necessity. He needs to fill his empty stomach, thus he is forced to kill, just like the pack of dogs.
Depending on how troublesome the episodes become in this novel, readers might have the opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief toward the closing of Pyron’s haunting and beautifully-told story.
At least there are certain characters who help Ivan re-adjust to what would be considered a social life. Ivan had lived a life of adventure, a life exciting, harsh and dangerous.
Today, numerous children in Africa, Cambodia, Spain, India and even in America continue to struggle with the same issues, which include drug and alcohol addiction, disease, aggressive behavior of gangs and government, and sadly, early deaths.
Still the street children of Russia roam the train stations, search for food, warmth and companionship.
For some, dogs and other beasts are more reliable and trustworthy than humans. Or as Ivan had reportedly informed a worker at the Reutov children’s shelter, based on a statement he made in a 1998 Chicago Sun-Times article, “I was better off with the dogs. They loved and protected me.”