Sooner or later, a historical crime novel is bound to drag you down some dark alley and into the nastiest, most lawless precincts of the period. Jean Zimmerman followed this tradition in her first novel, “The Orphanmaster,” a descent into the hellish criminal haunts of 17th-century New Amsterdam. In SAVAGE GIRL (Viking, $27.95), this canny author puts all that aside and turns to the Gilded Age for a sweeping narrative, set within the cloistered ranks of high society in 19th-century Manhattan, that raises touchy questions about what it means to be civilized.
Even in this exclusive world, the Delegate family is more privileged than most. The paterfamilias, Friedrich-August-Heinrich (also known as Freddy), has taken his family and a retinue of servants on his private, sumptuously appointed 12-car railroad train to Virginia City, Nev., to visit the silver mine that’s boosting his already considerable fortune. But when the Delegates depart from this brawling Wild West boom town, they have an additional passenger, a beautiful, feral young woman from a land that’s “savage, wild, forsaken by God and man” — who’s said to have been raised by wolves. Found at a sideshow, she’ll be the ideal experimental subject, Freddy thinks, for the nature-or-nurture debate roiling his intellectual set.
Using Freddy’s intelligent but decidedly peculiar son Hugo as narrator adds another layer of suspense to the story. A student of anatomy at Harvard, this young man has an unhealthy fondness for knives and a vivid imagination when it comes to Bronwyn, as the “Savij Girl” comes to be known. But who’s to say where imagination leaves off and obsession takes over, once the family is back in its Fifth Avenue mansion and the “Pygmalion”-like process of civilizing Bronwyn (who keeps her own set of razor-like steel claws and creeps out of the house to visit the wild animals at the zoo) begins in earnest.
The wondrous sights Zimmerman rolls out for us — a picnic on the banks of the Great Salt Lake, a stopover at the “fabulous, glorious” Palmer House hotel in Chicago and visits to mansions up and down the East Coast — are all the more piquant when Bronwyn’s admirers begin turning up, cut to ribbons, at almost every whistle stop. If this is civilization, bring on the wolves.
‘My Fair Lady’ Meets ‘Psycho’: PW Talks with Jean Zimmerman
A feral child unsettles Gilded Age New York City in Jean Zimmerman’s Savage Girl.
How did the book come to be?
I’d always wanted to write about a wolf girl—that is, one afflicted with the genetic condition known as hypertrichosis, which causes a person to resemble an animal, with fur growing all over his or her body. Many children with the condition were exhibited in American sideshows in an earlier period. Related in my mind was the phenomenon of so-called feral children, a girl or a boy purported to be raised by wolves (or by bears, or big cats, or goats, or, in one reported case, by rats). I ultimately crashed these two ideas together in Savage Girl.
What did the murder plot add?
A random killing here and there really focuses a narrative. We don’t know who is committing the murders in Savage Girl, but indications point to Bronwyn—and with good reason. The historical record shows that feral children were prone to violent outbursts.
You often write about the status of women. Was there something in particular about the women of the Gilded Age that intrigued you?
I found the debutante to be a fascinating creature and the coming out process one that was as constricting as it was lovely. Here were the grand dames of society, banding together when a girl reached the age of 18 or so, helping to usher her into a new social status. There was some power in the process for women. The learning curve was steep. There were new gowns and dance lessons, teas, ritualized social visits, and grand balls. The fashions were extraordinary. Yet debuting was filled with the strictest rules and obligations, and if you failed, there was the threat of punishment—remaining a spinster. I wanted to search beneath the opaque surface of the debuting process to find deeper meanings. That meant talking about both corsets and bloomers.
“Zimmerman’s dark comedy of manners is an obvious homage to Edith Wharton, a rip-roaring murder mystery more Robert Louis Stevenson than Conan Doyle and a wonderfully detailed portrait of the political, economic and philosophical issues driving post–Civil War America.” –KIRKUS
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