In 1999, elderly photographer Ned Giles explains one of his photographs to a man attending a New York showing of Giles's photos. The image is of a young Apache girl in a Mexican jail. The girl, Giles says, was called "the wild girl," and was found naked and starving in Mexico's Sierra Madre. The man purchases the photograph, leaving Giles to remember the girl's story, and his own, in detail. The tale, relayed by journal entries, flashbacks, and from the point of view of several characters, is set in 1932 and begins with the girl running desperately through the arroyo below the Sierra Madre while the cougar hunter Billy Flowers chases her.
Seventeen-year-old Ned Giles joins a large expedition as a photojournalist to Mexico to retrieve a kidnapped boy from the Apaches. Ned makes friends with wealthy and outspokenly gay Tolley, cultural anthropologist Margaret, and his own young assistant, Jesus.
Meanwhile, Flowers chases the Apache girl again, as she has escaped. The girl had been with her family, in a raid led by her crazy brother-in-law, Indio Juan, when they kidnapped the rich rancher's little boy. She remembers the kidnapping as she hides in a cave from Flowers. When Flowers finally catches the wild girl, he has no idea what to do with her, and so he takes her to the nearby town jail.
In the tiny village of Bavispe, Sonora, Ned encounters the shocking sight of the Apache girl tied to a post in front of the jail. He arranges to bathe and clothe her. Along with his friends, he hatches a plan that should benefit everyone, including the girl and the kidnapped boy --- trade the girl for the kidnapped boy. A small band consisting of Ned, the girl, an English butler, Tolley, Margaret, Jesus, and two Indian scouts set off to accomplish the mission. The Apaches soon capture them, and Ned finds himself in "…another world, a world with its own sun and moon, and its own separate race of man" --- and in imminent mortal danger.
As a tribute to Jim Fergus's talents as a storyteller, I literally could not put down this novel, staying up until nearly dawn to finish it. The characters are full-blooded and alive; the adventure unfolds at a breathless pace and the descriptions are lyrical. As I watched Ned Giles leave chilly Chicago to set off on his adventure, my mind movie changed from black and white to warm Technicolor. The story felt so real that I actually checked (several times!) to be sure that the word "novel" hadn't somehow changed to "nonfiction" on the jacket flap. This is one of the best books I've read in years, and a story that will remain with me. Very highly recommended.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 24, 2011
The Wild Girl: The Notebooks of Ned Giles, 1932