Monday, April 29, 2013

Wild Boy - a review

Losure, Mary. 2013. Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

Found living wild and naked in the mountains of France in 1797, the Savage of Aveyron, or Victor, as he was later called, was treated in turns as  a curiosity, an object of derision, a specimen, an imbecile, a burden.

About ten years old at the time of his discovery and capture, the Savage of Aveyron lived the rest of his life under the scrutiny of other people.  "Doctors" and "scientists" of the time, were a far cry from what they are today and it is fascinating to compare and contrast the state of modern science.  In the same circumstance today, the scientists most likely studying the young boy would be cultural anthropologists, with a focus on learning how the child adapts to his environment, what he eats, how he communicates.  Modern scientists would study him in his own habitat. In France, 1797, however, there is only one main focus - acculturate the boy and teach him to speak French.  No attempt is made to study the boy where he lives; in fact, nothing about his home in the wild is even noted.

Mary Losure has done an excellent job in telling "Victor's" story using period source documents (orphanage rolls, medical journals, correspondence) and accounts written in previous centuries.  There is little or no narrative license taken in this chronological account.  Her description of towns, roads and structures are taken from accounts of the time, and where information is missing, she helpful in filling in the back story, but clear on what is factual and what is speculation.

No one alive today knows the details of what happened next - whether the woodsmen kept a rode around the wild boy's neck or tied his hands behind his back.  No one knows if that night, they took him somewhere to sleep or left him in the square, tied and helpless.  But every day, he was forced to stand, hour after our, for everyone to see. 
And maybe it was then that the wild boy began to hate the staring eyes of crowds.

The boy escapes and is recaptured many times over the years.  He is given to the care of several different scientists, and finds (outside the scientific community), a few people who genuinely care for him.  However, his life is always difficult and sad.  He was known to laugh with glee at the opportunity to enjoy even the coldest of days outdoors, and alternatively, to pine sadly at windows when the moon was full and he was trapped indoors.

Despite spending years in the care of Dr. Itard at the Paris Institute for Deaf-Mutes, and in close proximity to its deaf students, no one ever attempted to teach him to sign.

Dr. Itard had known from the first time he'd met the wild boy that communicating with hand gestures came naturally to him. 
Yet it never seemed to occur to Dr. Itard to try to teach Victor formal sign language.
Dr. Itard himself had never learned it, even though he spent more than thirty years working at a school for deaf children.  Like many people in those days, he did not believe that the formal signing used by deaf people was real language.  He wanted Victor to speak, and to Itard, that meant speaking aloud.

Victor never learned to speak aloud, therefore, the entire decades-long intrusion into the life of Victor, the Savage of Aveyron, was considered a failure by the scientific standards of the time. A strange, sad and true tale that, though featuring a boy without words, speaks volumes about communication and ethnocentrism.  It is the savage, not science, that triumphs in Wild Boy.

Haunting, monochromatic illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering add much to the story.  Endpapers contain maps of the boy's journey, and back matter includes an Author's Note, Source Notes, Bibliography, Index, and Acknowledgments.

Written for a target audience of age ten and up (difficult words are often explained parenthetically), this is a biography that will be of interest to teens and adults as well.

Mary Losure is the author of The Fairy Ring.  Timothy Basil Ering has illustrated many books including Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux.

An interesting note: As a boy, Victor Hugo lived just a few doors away from the adult Victor, and most likely would have seen him loping and gamboling in the garden. 

Some say the hero of Hugo's book The Hunchback of Notre Dame may have been based on the young boy's glimpses of the strange, wild man who roamed the convent gardens and never spoke.

Today's Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Stacking Books.


  1. What a sad tale! Surely the scientists could have done better than to probe and prod! It goes to show how little we ourselves are "evolved" in accepting differences in people.
    But a wonderful review. And yes it is intriguing about Victor Hugo isn't it? ;)
    Thanks for sharing at NF Monday.

  2. Agreed! Wonderful review and many thanks for sharing this new title with us on non-fiction Monday. (Weird connection: I taught HS French for several years in the 1980's and we studied V. Hugo's work and as a kind of reward after that difficult text, I let them watch the original black & White film version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The hunchback was brilliantly played by Charles Laughton . . . and he later became one of the first actors to collect paintings by Horace Pippin.)
    Anyhow, I'm going to get this book and will look forward to seeing what Mary Losure has to say about a possible connection between the "two Victors."


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