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.
How would you summarize the plot?
The story plunks down a mysterious sideshow waif in the middle of high-society New York in 1875. My heroine, Bronwyn, is thought to have been raised in the wild, and in her physicality, intelligence, and force of personality, she goes against the “shrinking violet” femininity of the day. There’s also a sense of the new, uncommon wealth and technologies, the hard-charging, burgeoning industrial age. But in the Gilded Age, there’s also an element of the tragic, because the Civil War has just dipped New York in blood, along with the rest of the country. In this case it’s a combination of Pygmalion saga and murder mystery, My Fair Lady crossed with Psycho.
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.