A Russian girl adopts a very large, very unusual “puppy” in Maroney’s debut middle-grade novel.
Although 9-year-old Natasha loves her grandfather, Deda, she doesn’t like having to leave her little Russian village to stay with him in the impoverished, crime-ridden town of Horridgrad while her father is away on an engineering job. The town is a scary place, under the thumb of crime boss Ivan the Horrid and a corrupt mayor. So Natasha is delighted when Deda buys her a playful, snow-white puppy in the marketplace. She names him Mishka, and the animal grows at such an astonishing rate that some in town even wonder if he’s a dog at all. (The author’s clever hints about what Mishka is become more overt as the story progresses.) When Mishka helps to rescue children from an icy pond, stops a robbery, and keeps Ivan’s thugs away, he makes the town’s residents feel safer, and they begin to join together to improve their community. Irate Ivan, losing his grip on the town, schemes with the flunky mayor to get rid of Mishka. Maroney sets this delightful story in the present day, but gives it the unforced charm of an old-world folk tale, with moments of real hilarity, subtle suggestions of mystery and magic, and an inventive take on the theme of good triumphing over evil. Along the way, the author gets in a few sly jabs at politicians; for instance, the mayor takes a course in answering questions and afterward “could answer questions all day long and never say one thing that made any sense.” In another quirky moment, Ivan is disappointed that the hitman he hires turns out to be an animal rights activist. Natasha, Deda, and rambunctious Mishka are well-developed characters, as are several side players.
An inventive treat, with humor, heart, and a hint of magic.