Having read and deeply enjoyed Jim Fergus‘s One Thousand White Women, I decided to read his other novel, The Wild Girl: The Notebooks of Ned Giles, 1932. The structure of the book is very similar to OTWW: we follow the story through the eyes of the main character as he writes his observations in his notebooks. Here, we follow Ned Giles, a 17-year old Chicago native who, after his parents deaths decides to enlist as photographer in an expedition in Mexico to retrieve the son of a wealthy Mexican rancher abducted by the Bronco Apaches.
The whole story takes place within the context of the Great Depression and, as in OTWW, the expedition allows Fergus to introduce a variety of characters: the female anthropologist, the gay son of a wealthy family whose father thinks that the rugged life of the expedition will make a man out of him, his British butler, the seen-it-all drunkard newspaper photographer who mentors Ned in his job as photographer, Joseph and Albert Valor, the Apaches hired as scouts, as well as Billy Flowers, the religious fanatic, wildlife hunter, and many others.
The story actually starts when Billy Flowers’s dogs tree a wild Apache girl whose family has been slaughtered by Mexican ranchers. Not knowing what to do with her, he takes her to the town where the expedition is gathering and it is soon decided to try to exchange the girl for the abducted Mexican boy. In the process, Ned and the wild girl develop a bond… and then, some members of the expedition get captured by the Apaches… and I won’t spoil the rest.
As I said, the narrative structure is very similar to OTWW and so does the progression of the story. Although it is a page turner and I could not put it down, I have to say that Fergus is not as successful here in writing from the perspective of a 1930s adolescent as he was conveying the voice of May Dodd in OTWW. THat is the only negative point I have with the book. Some times, I had just had to stop reading and think "no way."
The other similarity with OTWW is that the line between civilization and savagery is a very blurry, porous and changing one and at different points in the story, it is hard to tell who are the savages and who are the civilized people: the Apaches who consistently rape Mexican women, slaughter men and torture their prisoners in horrific ways, or the Mexican who kill and scalp Indians for money with the blessings of the Mexican government, or the wealthy Whites who sign up for the expedition for a bit of fun, fishing and hunting, and, they hope, killing a few Indians for sport? Both societies are patriarchal and sexist, each in its own way, and both use violence. The only real difference lies in the power differential, which, ultimately, is the only distinction that matters.
Finally, whereas OTWW tied the loose ends at the beginning and ending of the book, TWG does not do so, which always leaves me frustrated. I have a primitive mind and I like stories to actually end someplace. I wished for an ending / epilogue similar to OTWW. But this is nitpicking. Like I said, it’s a page turner.