Into the Wild: A Look at the Feral Children Running Through Recent Fiction
by Matthew Nolan
The ostensibly solid barrier between wild animals and civilized humans is being torn apart by a pack of recent American novels and short stories. From the cross-species siblings in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are Completely Beside Ourselves to the three animals trying to avoid slaughter in David Duchovny’s Holy Cow, fiction writers are overtly (and sometimes playfully) asking what’s so humane about human beings. And animals are coming off as more thoughtful than ever. In novels already published this year, an orphaned elephant narrates part of Tania James’ The Tusk That Did the Damage and a blind grizzly bear plays a major role in Christian Kiefer’s The Animals.
As part of this trend, feral children, who blur the line between animal and human, have made their way back into the fields of American fiction. Wild boys and girls have run through American literature since Huckleberry Finn fled the “sivilized” world, but now they are popping up in a variety of settings. In this age of overscheduled and sheltered children, these stories take the ongoing debate over nature vs. nurture to extremes. Instead of needing constant Internet connectivity, these feral children live way off the grid. Here are some recent highlights within wild-child fiction:
CONTEMPORARY: In Porochista Khakpour’s 2014 novel The Last Illusion, a 10-year-old Iranian boy named Zal is rescued from the birdcage in which his widowed mother kept him. He can only “chirp, tweet, coo, shriek” like the other birds around him. After moving to Manhattan with his adoptive father, a child psychologist fascinated by feral children, Zal learns to communicate and express emotion while secretly coping with his bird-like instincts. For instance, he furtively snacks on chocolate-covered grasshoppers. Zal sympathetically merges animal and man, as Khakpour combines a distinctive coming-of-age story with a harrowing 9/11 novel.
HISTORICAL: In the title story of T.C Boyle’s 2010 collection Wild Child, a barely clothed boy who cannot speak is discovered near a French forest and captured. Based on an actual historical episode from 1800 (as well as Francois Truffaut’s film of the same name), Boyle’s version describes the morbid fascination of the townspeople with this creature who “used only his bare hands and broken nails to dig in the sodden earth, like a dog.” The boy is taken up by a young doctor who names him Victor and tries to educate and civilize him. For Dr. Jean-Marc Itard, this child was a blank canvas to test Rousseau and Locke’s ideas about society’s effects on the individual. Boyle conveys Victor’s struggles with Itard and his regimen. Itard stops working with Victor and eventually stops visiting too, and we see how Victor has been abandoned a second time.
ABSURDIST: With “St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves,” the title story of Karen Russell’s 2006 collection, the isolated-child model gets flipped on its head with its focus on the feral child’s viewpoint instead of on the outside observer’s judgmental perspective. Narrated by Claudette (wolf name: “TRRR”), the story follows a group of girls who have been taken from the warm dens of their werewolf parents and transplanted into a corrective school that seeks to teach human behavior. From learning to wear squared-toed shoes to dancing awkwardly with their young-male counterparts, Russell uses both humor and pathos to show the unpleasant surprises of civilization.
SEMI-FERAL: Over the decades, the connotation of “feral” has changed from the romanticized innocence of Mowgli and Tarzan in the noble jungle to a darker perception of a lack of affection and nurturing. In Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek (2014), a case of childhood neglect and lack of socialization is central to the plot. Benjamin Pearl, the 11-year-old victim, was not raised by wolves but by a conspiracy-theorist father in the Montana backwoods. He is found by the book’s protagonist, a social services worker, to be suffering from disease, abuse, and isolation. Henderson’s unflinching and morally complicated story is about the wildness present not only in feral children but also in so-called civilized adults.