On January 8, 1800, a wild boy emerged from the French forest of Aveyron. He had been spotted several times, and twice captured over several years, but he had always escaped before. Apparently deaf, unable to speak, bearing scars that told of an abusive history, the boy, christened Victor, eventually ended up in the home of a young medical student Jean Marc Gaspard Itard where he was cared for by Dr. Itard’s housekeeper Madame Guerin. Though he worked with Victor intensively for many years, Dr. Itard was never able to teach the boy more than two words: milk and oh, God.
From this history, Jill Dawson builds her captivating novel Wild Boy. Ms. Dawson places Dr. Itard and Madame Guerin in Parisian school for the deaf. The doctor is only 27 when he first meets Victor. Young, inexperienced, shy to a fault, a stutterer, the doctor is almost incapable of functioning in the society outside the school for the deaf where he works. Madame Guerin lives in the school with her ailing husband. Her grown daughter works there as a nurse but is not allowed to live with her mother and father. Dr. Itard places Victor in Madame Guerin’s care, moving him into the apartment she shares with her husband.
Dr. Itard, Madame Guerin and Victor form an unlikely triangle of characters. They each share the narration of Wild Boy, providing alternate views on the novel’s action. Dr. Itard is caught up in the high minded idealism of his time. To him Victor represents an opportunity to prove philosophical ideas. Victor is man in his natural state. Whether or not he can be civilized and just how that process will affect him could prove whether or not the Enlightenment’s theories about man’s natural state are correct. Rosseau believed man in nature would be a noble savage, gentle and innocent, incapable of guile, desirous of solitude. Dr. Itard hopes to prove these ideas, but he must first prove that Victor is not an ‘idiot’ as many others believe.
Madam Guerin brings the novel down to earth, hard. She has no interest in high minded theories. She must take care of an uncontrollable child. One who does not respond to words or commands of any kind, one who attempts to run outside at every turn and refuses to eat anything but milk and beans. These two alternating first person narrations are interrupted by Victor’s story, told in third person. While the adults around him argue theory vs. pragmatism, Victor longs for a return to the forest, to the simple joy he found running in new fallen snow.
From a modern perspective, it is clear that Victor has a severe form of autism. Madame Guerin and Dr. Itard complain that the boy does not look them in the eye, will not bond with either of them. Dr. Itard believes this is brought on by his childhood spent alone in the forest. Over their years together, Victor does respond to both Dr. Itard and Madame Guerin, but he never becomes the civilized man so many hoped he would.
What is most interesting and most admirable about Wild Boy is the way Ms. Dawson uses her two narrators to illuminate Victor’s situation. In one scene, Dr. Itard takes Victor to a high society dinner at the invitation of the most beautiful woman in Paris. Victor is clearly out of place. Before the dinner is over he has taken off most of his clothes, climbed up a tree and refused to come down. But Dr. Itard, in his own way, is just as misplaced. Painfully aware of his shyness and his stutter, he is unable to engage the dinner party in the conversation they expect, unable to flirt, unable to debate. He is certainly shocked by Victor’s behavior but he is just as shocked by the dinner guests’s and by the fact that they are not offended by Victor. Dr. Itard is drawn to Madame Guerin’s daughter but he is so awkward around her that he offends her several times, spoiling what could have been a relationship that led to marriage. In the end, he is less capable of showing his affection than Victor is, condemned to live alone. His tragedy is that he knows this.
Madame Guerin brings the trauma of the French Revolution into the novel. She lost her only son to it. He was only five years old at the time and already exhibiting signs that he was a child like Victor. She later participated in the excesses of The Terror; something she looks back on now with great shame. She views Victor as a second chance, an opportunity to redeem herself for what happened to her son and for what she did during The Terror.
This is all conjecture on the part of Ms. Dawson. Little is known of Dr. Itard’s personal life. Madame Guerin is only briefly mentioned here and there so much less is known of hers. Nothing is known of how Victor came to be living in the Forest of Aveyron. Diagnosing him as autistic seems reasonable, but there is no way to know with certainty. However by just a few pages into Wild Boy none of this matters. The story is so fascinating, Ms. Dawson’s characters so compelling, her book so well written that the reader is drawn into the book certain that everything in it is true.
When I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2010 I received a comment from someone much more familiar with the deaf community than I am. Apparently, Dr. Itard is not viewed as a hero among the hearing impaired to say the least. Many view him and his experimental treatments as quite villainous. As I recall, Ms. Dawson does portray Dr. Itard’s work as well-meaning: I would not say she portrays it as heroic. It’s early medicine in all it’s horror. Be happy you were not alive to endure it. Modern medicine is much, much better.