Friday, May 24, 2013

Susan's Book Review: Wild Boy by Mary Losure

Wild Boy tells the true story of a child found living in the woods of France around 1800. I’ve heard of several such children, sometimes raised by animals, and have always been fascinated by them. He’s first spotted around age 7 and captured a year later. He escapes and is captured (this happens a few times), until finally around age 12 he walks into town on his own. Word spread of the feral boy and scientists of the day were very keen to study him. Early on, he was treated more like a specimen than a human, and several scientists took turns poking, prodding, and observing him. His body was covered in scars, most notably a large one on his neck that made them wonder if he’d been left for dead in the woods after having his throat slashed. Based on his scars and physical condition, they guessed he’d been living on his own since age 5. He went naked and barefoot and didn’t seem to be sensitive to the cold. He loved potatoes, couldn’t speak, hated clothes and shoes, and sometimes walked on all fours. He also had to be closely supervised or he’d escape.


It was common in those days to imprison the mute and feeble-minded with criminals in very poor conditions. After being studied by several scientists who concluded he was most likely an imbecile, he was recommended to be placed in an insane asylum. A young doctor named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard had been watching the boy and believed he could be taught. He spoke up and offered to teach him at a school for the deaf and mute. After working with Victor, as he’d finally been named, from age 13 to 18 on the government’s dime, the experiment was deemed a failure and the lessons stopped. They did make progress in his education, but he never learned to speak. He communicated in his own way using a series of hand gestures. Itard is given credit for keeping Victor out of the madhouse, but his housekeeper, a lady named Madame Guerin, actually cared for him for over 20 years and doesn’t seem to get enough credit for that. Victor died at age 40 at her house, but it’s not recorded how.


Since the events in Wild Boy happened so long ago, not a lot of details are known. I think Victor’s story would make a great Wikipedia entry (and indeed it does, I looked it up after reading the book), but it makes for a lame book. The author spends a lot of time speculating about the boy’s life and in a book of non-fiction, that’s kind of annoying. It’s illustrated and a quick read, but the scientists who study Victor are more fleshed out than he is, and I finished the book feeling like I’d read a summary of a story instead of an actual story.


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