British professor Newton vents a ten-year obsession, stemming from his Ph.D. dissertation, by examining six celebrated cases of so-called feral children.
Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome, are seen by the author as emblematic of the mythic mystery surrounding stories of infants supposedly nurtured in the wild by animals. But not all feral children were raised by wolves: the lost and abandoned, those stuffed into closets, pigsties, or henhouses for years on end by abusive or psychotic “guardians” all initially present society with the same tragic and, it seems, irresistibly exploitable circumstances. In some of the cases Newton delves into, the discovered child could not speak and never fully acquired language; in others, the facility remained from earlier childhood and almost inevitably led to charges of fraud and duplicity that, in the end, transmuted one kind of suffering into another. All of these stories (and others mentioned in passing) are intrinsically fascinating, but the author leans toward intellectual meandering that can take the edge off his revelations. In the case of Peter, the 18th-century “wild boy” brought to England from Germany, for example, Newton’s speculations on the involvement of writers Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe and their reflections on the matter consume entire pages. He touches a nerve, however, in summing up the stark fact that in almost all of these instances, spanning several centuries to the present day, no one could be found who would simply care for the lost child without serving some vested interest. Thankfully, that we get a seemingly happy ending for contemporary wild child Ivan Mishukov, whose story appears in the beginning. The four-year-old Muscovite, who took to the streets in 1996 with a pack of dogs that actually kept the cops at bay while he stole food from restaurant kitchens and eventually “promoted” him to pack leader, is now back in school and progressing normally.
Fascinating tales, analyzed at times to excess.