Savage Girl by Jean Zimmerman
Pub. Date: March 6, 2014
Source: Finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Viking!!)
Summary: Jean Zimmerman’s new novel tells of the dramatic events that transpire when an alluring, blazingly smart eighteen-year-old girl named Bronwyn, reputedly raised by wolves in the wilds of Nevada, is adopted in 1875 by the Delegates, an outlandishly wealthy Manhattan couple, and taken back East to be civilized and introduced into high society.
Bronwyn hits the highly mannered world of Edith Wharton-era Manhattan like a bomb. A series of suitors, both young and old, find her irresistible, but the willful girl’s illicit lovers begin to turn up murdered.
Zimmerman’s tale is narrated by the Delegate’s son, a Harvard anatomy student. The tormented, self-dramatizing Hugo Delegate speaks from a prison cell where he is prepared to take the fall for his beloved Savage Girl. This narrative—a love story and a mystery with a powerful sense of fable—is his confession.
Genre: Adult, Historical Fiction
Following her successful The Orphanmaster, Jean Zimmerman returns with a marvelously detailed – and at times, downright gruesome! – tale of the Gilded Age, high society, and a feral child.
In 1875, the Delgate family, among the upper crust of Manhattan society, takes a tour of the American West. While in Nevada, they stop for a local sideshow attraction, Savage Girl. It’s said the girl was raised by wolves and is presented on stage for the curious audience to gawk over. Mr. and Mrs. Delgate are collectors of a sort. Mrs. Delgate has in tow two helpers, or servants, that she refers to as her pets: a Chinese woman named Tu Li and a Zuni berdache (‘two-spirit’, identifies with both genders). Nothing would make Mrs. Delgate happier than adding a feral child to her brood, particularly since this girl is around the same age her own daughter would be had she not died as a baby. For Mr. Delgate, the social experiment – is it possible to teach and mold this girl, to debut her – is far too exciting to pass up.
Almost immediately from the start the plan begins to crack, but the Delgates press on, teaching this girl – Bronwyn, they discover she could write her name – to write and read, the proper way to eat, and how to curtsy. Back in Manhattan, Bronwyn meets all the right people, learns all the correct dance steps, and soon becomes a media darling. Her debut was a Must See and any dress she wore immediately set the current trend.
Bronwyn had a power over people and no one was immune – not even her ‘brother,’ Hugo Delgate. Hugo was studying anatomy at Harvard and had a promising career ahead of him until Savage Girl came along. After one murder too many, Hugo’s suspicions are tested and it’s Hugo who tells this story as he’s sitting in a holding cell. Savage Girl is his confession for murders and mutilations stretching the length of the United States.
From the opening chapter I knew I was in for a good time. Savage Girl‘s imagery is so rich and detailed I had no trouble at all believing I was in the newly-settled West or mingling with millionaires in New York. It certainly didn’t hurt that Zimmerman included many historical figures as cameos (my favorite was a college-aged Teddy Roosevelt)! Although I wasn’t quite sure how I would enjoy having Hugo narrate the story, my worries quickly vanished. Hugo had it all before Savage Girl came along. His studies were going well and everyone was waiting for the moment he would finally propose to Delia Showalter. Once Bronwyn appeared, however, everything fell apart. So strong was his infatuation that he confessed to a series of murders he didn’t commit – although his near-descent into madness and worry that perhaps he did murder all those men was fascinating and morbidly enjoyable.
When she was discovered, Bronwyn had a few items: a Bible and Vanity Fair, both with many missing pages, and a dirty doll. It was clear that at some point before losing her family she had been taught to read and write, and under the Delgates’s wings, she quickly picked up where she left off. Her story, once she decides to share the details with Hugo, was heartbreaking. She remembered bits and pieces of her childhood: her parents and a baby, she possibly came from Wales. She had been taken by the Comanche and it is this tribe that she considers to be her true family. They raised her as their own, taught her how to ride horses and hunt, gave her a new name. When settlers came along Bronwyn found herself alone once more, this time she truly had to fend for herself. For years she lived in a cave with a jaguar cub until a severe illness led her to being discovered and taken into town as a new attraction.
There were only two minor issues I had with Savage Girl. The story takes place over the course of a single year. In that time, Bronwyn was able to transform from a feral child to a debutante fully capable of holding her own in a philosophical debate. That this happened in such a short time frame seemed a bit unrealistic to me. My other issue was that, as the reader, I was constantly being told things that I’m perfectly able to figure out myself. On multiple occasions Hugo would pause his narration to explain what a snide remark was supposed to mean. In one case Delia spoke and the following sentence read: “This was Delia’s pointed reference to the evening she saw…” This hand-holding became slightly aggravating as the novel wore on.
Despite my minor quibbles Savage Girl was a wonderful read. It’s 400-page length kept me engaged and invested until the end and whenever I had to stop reading the book was constantly on my mind and I couldn’t wait to get back to it. The best part of the story, however, was that I was kept guessing until the last page. Bravo, Ms. Zimmerman! If you’re a reader who enjoys historical fiction and doesn’t mind getting down and dirty (remember, these murders involved mutilation), I strongly recommend picking up a copy of Savage Girl! I loved it and am now interested in reading Zimmerman’s previous novel!
“Can anyone be fully human and not like dogs?”
“I can’t imagine a more cruel state of affairs,” I said, “than to be allowed to know part of a story and not be able to get at its end.”