Good Dogs Do Stray is a narrative blend of a young person's wonderment and the seasoned reflection of an older man. Emmerich Koller tells the true story of his family as it copes with privation, World War II and its aftermath, escape from Stalinist Hungary after the revolution of 1956, four years of refugee life in Austria, and immigration to America. Woven into the family's history is the author's own metamorphosis from poor country boy to seminarian, to college graduate, to member of a religious order, to teacher.
The story begins in the spring of 1945. The villagers cower in their homes. Once again in its long history, Pernau, located at the western edge of Hungary, finds itself in the path of fighting armies. The retreating Germans care little about the loss of innocent life or village property if their shells from nearby Austria can slow down the pursuing Red Army. A horrific explosion announces the arrival of the Russians and awakens little Emmerich to the world around him. Smoke and dust have barely settled when an officer knocks on the door and asks for a needle and thread. Like a proper gentleman, he returns everything a short time later. Relief sweeps over the entire family. Not for long. The dreaded horde follows.
After the war, life in the village returns to a semblance of normalcy for a few years before the communist plague destroys the traditions imported 300 years ago by the author's Bavarian ancestors. Emmerich belongs to the last generation that experienced the old village life before it disappeared forever. With his vivid descriptions, a vanished past comes alive. We accompany the village crier with his drum on his appointed round, and take an intimate tour of the old village. We hear the sound of the trumpet that summons the village pigs for their daily dig and wallow in the woods. We meet Seppl, the "village idiot," as he digs out stumps in the forest and is duped into carrying the red flag at the head of the May Day parade. We walk into the one-room schoolhouse where as a little boy the author receives his elementary education along with frequent beatings. We attend Mass in the local Baroque church where a serious ambition in a child's mind is formed. We discover Shaekl, the family cow, who has an endearing personality and a mind of her own. We walk into the dark forest near the Koller house and sense that the forest isn't just a collection of trees but a treasured friend with a generous soul. We meet the roving gypsies who are feared but also pitied for their poverty and sad condition. We are shocked, as cast-offs of the war become dangerous toys for children, and lethal security installations along the Iron Curtain become the playground of a lad.
This is just the beginning. The story goes on with many poignant and humorous tales from a deprived childhood, an old-fashioned upbringing, and the long and twisted journey from a primitive village in Hungary to the sophisticated metropolis of Chicago.
Very early in life, the author becomes responsible for his own destiny when he leaves the family at age fourteen, first to learn a trade, and then to enter a seminary with the intention of becoming a Catholic missionary priest. The description of his religious formation is intimate, reflective, candid, and witty.
For the author and his family, setbacks were always followed by progress because they dared to transcend conventional norms and boundaries. Still, it took a long time to embrace the concept that it is acceptable even for good dogs to stray.