Almost all of us have probably heard stories of young people who
are "feral." They are children who are raised in the wild, either
by themselves or by animals. Although these accounts may seem
fictional, there are, amazingly enough, feral children in this
world --- from boys raised by monkeys, to a girl who roamed the
woods alone, to children raised by wolves or locked away in
solitary confinement by abusive guardians. As recently as 1996, a
four-year-old Muscovite was roaming the streets with a pack of dogs
and the canines had promoted him to "pack leader." The dogs kept
the police at bay while the boy stole food from restaurants.
Michael Newton's new book, SAVAGE GIRLS AND WILD BOYS, is an
articulate, well-researched probing into the lives of these
Newton, a professor at University College London and Central Saint
Martins College of Art and Design, examines six celebrated cases of
feral children and asks many questions regarding their humanness.
What makes us human? What makes a beast a beast? How do you
communicate with someone uncommunicative? Why are feral children
the way they are and can we get them back to being "normal" again?
Did these cases need an interventionist or were the children better
off being left alone in the wild? Are they helpless or helpful?
Hopeless or hopeful?
Newton tries to answer these questions by delving into their
respective stories. We are introduced to Peter, a "Wild Boy" who
was celebrated in London and discussed in the social circles of
Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe. We meet Marie-Angelique Memmie
LeBlanc --- a girl found roaming the forests of France in 1731 ---
and Kaspar Hauser of Germany, who was imprisoned for years as a
child and later assassinated. We also encounter children who were
raised by wolves and those who were kept in chicken coops. These
are truly fascinating individuals with amazing stories.
In fact, this book is much like Douglas Keith Candland's intriguing
work, FERAL CHILDREN AND CLEVER ANIMALS: Reflections on Human
Nature, in which he demonstrates that most of the conclusions
formed by the teachers and interventionists of wild children are
simply projections of what we want to believe about human
SAVAGE GIRLS AND WILD BOYS is copiously researched --- perhaps a
bit too much in some areas. There are many pages that are flooded
with facts and information, yet dry in story. Indeed, what makes
this book so readable are the wild children's stories. Newton
observes that the people who took these children in didn't do so
simply from the goodness of their hearts. They all did it to serve
some interest of theirs --- to further their careers, studies or
inquisitiveness. As a result, the book has a depressing lean to it.
Still, it is obsessively written, with an eye towards detail and a
keener eye into the lives of savage girls and wild boys and what
their stories tell us about ourselves.
Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley on January 24, 2011