Posted by: Jeanie F | March 9, 2011

Wild Child, Part Deux

Illustration by Atak

What is it about the concept of feral children that is so fascinating? Is it that they manage to survive at all, without the attention of caring adults? Is it the glimpse we get of the undistilled human character? Is it the hope that if we can tame these children, there is hope for us to tame our own savage instincts? 

The title story in TC Boyle’s story collection, Wild Child, explores the response of the French in the late 18th Century to the capture of Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron. With his throat slit by his stepmother at the age of five, the boy was abandoned in the forest and left to die. That he didn’t die seems almost impossible, but he survived on his own for several years before he inadvertently stumbled into civilization. He quickly became a public sensation, “the entire nation was mad for news of this prodigy from Aveyron, the wild child, the animal in human form.” He was transferred to the Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Paris, where he became the charge of Dr. Jean-Marc Itard.
 
The story that unfolds is one of Itard’s efforts to civilize the boy, and the boy’s equally intense efforts to frustrate Itard. The goal was to teach him to speak and, eventually, to reason. Over time, Itard’s treatment of Victor, who was so named because he was able to articulate the vowel “O”, followed a course from benign indulgence to punitive rigor. Boyle does an outstanding job of showing us the boy’s confusion, incomprehension, and wily manipulation of Itard.
 
This is not a romanticized version of this story nor, as one familiar with Boyle’s style might expect, is it comic. Boyle has a firm grasp on what must have been the emotional pulse of this situation, and we watch as Victor develops from a willful and untamed child to a willful and untamed adolescent. Upon the boy reaching puberty a new set of complications arises, and decisions about his future must be made.
 
In his New York Times review of this book, Wells Tower aptly sums up the lasting impression of  “Wild Child”:
 
The story is subtle and intricate, and ­rouses the reader to conflicted sympathies: you ache for Victor’s rehabilitation, yet he’s so exasperatingly incorrigible, you simultaneously side with the bureaucrat who wants him castrated and imprisoned.
 
It’s a fascinating story, and one that will often surprise – sometimes shock – you, but will definitely leave you with a more sympathetic understanding of the internal life of the feral child than you’ve ever had.
 
Grade: A

Responses

  1. That definitely sounds interesting. Thanks for this great review.

  2. I’ve always loved reading books where emotions are well conveyed. I’m sure i’ll enjoy this one


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