Accounts of children found in the wild have long attracted storytellers and scholars. Lucien Malson, in Les Enfants Sauvages (1964), lists 53 cases of children abandoned in the wild, dating from the 14th century to the 20th - the most famous being Victor de l'Aveyron and Kaspar Hauser. These cases alone have generated scores of scholarly works and retellings of the legends - including films by Francois Truffaut and Werner Herzog - that have achieved near-classic status.
Michael Newton's foray into this territory is an audacious attempt for a first-time author. Although Newton does not add much to the historical record, his spritely narrative style and attention to lesser-known modern cases make the book a good read.
His approach is enhanced by his literary sensibilities. Sections on Peter of Hanover, Memmie Leblanc and Victor de l'Aveyron include fascinating vignettes on life in the 18th century. Newton is equally skilled at providing background on the literary history surrounding the brochures, chap-books and biographies elicited by the discovery of these children, and at clarifying controversies surrounding authors such as Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift.
But Newton's lyrical sensibility leads him astray at times. His tendency to accept textual evidence at face value leads to doubtful speculations. How can we know that Kipling was "hankering [in The Jungle Books ] for a time when he felt his own personality to be free"? Or that Dr Itard saw "some lost part of himself" in "poor Victor"? The tenuous historiography of J. A. L. Singh and R. Zingg's book on Kamala and Amala led many to discount their tale of life among wolves, but Newton presents it as fact.
Newton's most imprudent leap of faith concerns Mme Hecquet, the supposed author of L'Histoire d'une Jeune Fille Sauvage . Other scholars have noted peculiarities regarding Hecquet, given the lack of biographical data on her, and the eagerness of her sponsor, the scientist Charles Marie de la Condamine, to deny his involvement in the book and conjure up the image of a benefactress-biographer taking Leblanc under her wing. But Newton claims she was among those "who investigated Memmie's origins most rigorously". Such literal-minded reading leads Newton into trouble later in the book. He claims: "There is no record - in anyone's writing - of what happened to Memmie Leblanc." On the contrary, recent scholarship has uncovered much evidence on this woman's later years in Paris.
Newton fares better in accounts of contemporary cases - such as Ivan Mishukov, the Moscow boy who preferred life among a pack of wild dogs to the chaos of his mother's home, or John Ssabunnya, whose three-year survival in the Ugandan bush was doubtless made possible by a troop of monkeys. These stories pack a mighty emotional charge. To his credit, Newton also reveals the darker side of this history. The stories of Kaspar, Victor, Amala and Kamala, and Genie, none of whom found happiness among humans, are sobering. They are witness to the benevolence that moves people to adopt such children, but they also warn of the perils that may ensue.
The general reader will find in Savage Girls and Wild Boys a moving testament to the human will to survive and to find companionship in some of the most arduous circumstances. That it concerns children makes the book of even greater appeal.
Julia V. Douthwaite is professor of French, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, US.
Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children
Author - Michael Newton
ISBN - 0 571 20139 3
Publisher - Faber
Price - £12.99
Pages - 284