Mordicai Gerstein The Wild Boy: Based on the True Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron; illus. by the author
40 pp. Foster/Farrar 9/98 ISBN 0-374-38431-2 16.00 (Younger)
Mordicai Gerstein Victor: A Novel Based on the Life of the Savage of Aveyron
258 pp. Foster/Farrar 9/98 ISBN 0-374-38142-9 17.00 g (Older)
In a brief introduction to Victor, Gerstein acknowledges Truffaut’s film The Wild Child (1970) as his inspiration for this dual treatment of an exotic and fascinating topic: the story of the wild boy, found in the forests of southern France shortly after the French Revolution, who became a national sensation and the subject of many investigations into the nature of culture, learning, and intelligence. It was the era of Rousseau and Locke; consequently, the theories of what made a person essentially or innately human were constantly debated. Many dignitaries examined the child, but it was a young doctor named Jean-Marc Itard who committed himself to the task of introducing a child without language, memory of human encounters, or interests beyond survival to the norms of social behavior and learning. The story of that commitment is given two different but not incompatible treatments as a picture book and as a novel. Obviously, the novel, designed for older readers, can expand upon the basic information, introduce more characters and examples of the difficulties which both boy and mentor encountered, delve into the problems of emerging sexuality in an unconstrained being, and provide graphic descriptions of uninhibited behavior in conflict with the training provided by Itard and his associates. Yet the picture book has a haunting, wistful charm captured in a minimal space through a well-honed poetic text accompanied by delicately limned, impressionistic illustrations. It conveys the struggle between scientific interest and human concern without proselytizing, allowing events to speak for themselves, as in the poignant conclusion when Itard, observing Victor gazing at the full moon with rapt attention, thinks, “I wonder what he sees . . . I wonder what he feels. I wonder . . .” And so do we. The novel also emphasizes this emotion, but less economically because it differs in tone and intent. Told from a variety of perspectives, including Victor’s, it also introduces a subplot, the story of Julie (the daughter of Victor’s surrogate mother), who has been sexually abused by her sister’s husband and is revolted by Victor’s interest in her. Because of limitations posed by the format and intended audience, the picture book does not describe the final months of the relationship between Victor and Itard when the latter realizes that his efforts to teach the child to speak are fruitless, that Victor’s frustration level has been exceeded, and that their continued association would be futile. Yet, his work with Victor was not without merit, as the afterwords of the picture book and the novel indicate, for it inspired Maria Montessori and laid the foundation for techniques and theories employed in special education. Acknowledgment of sources is found in the novel, yet the picture book seems equally well-researched. There is a difference: the novel appeals to the intellect; the picture book to the heart. Both, however, are obviously written by someone who cares deeply about the subject. MARY M. BURNS
From the November/December 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.