Girl Gone Wild

Once past the first few dozen pages, Jim Fergus delivers a stirring cross-cultural Western adventure

So, right off the bat, here are this critic's qualifications for recommending Jim Fergus' The Wild Girl: Go for it if ...

You can overlook a superfluous story frame. You're willing to read for a while before something happens. You don't mind a little caricature. You're ready to consider that the Winners of the West were not altruistic heroes. You like historical fiction set in an exotic area nearby. Are up for experiencing differences--cultural, social, class. Like a little humor in your Westerns. Appreciate authorial dexterity in juggling points of view. Relate to Nick in The Great Gatsby and don't take that Heart of Darkness thing too seriously.

And the top qualification for recommending The Wild Girl: The Notebooks of Ned Giles:

If you're looking for an original, sweetly innocent relationship and adventure story about authentic Indians and misbehaving white folks that'll wring out a bit of a tear at its not altogether tragic finish.

In Jim Fergus' first novel, One Thousand White Women, he fictionalized the 1875 agreement between Ulysses S. Grant and Cheyenne chief Little Wolf to assimilate Cheyenne warriors by supplying them with American wives. In The Wild Girl, based on an incident Fergus heard about in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, he brings together a green Chicago photographer and an Apache girl who'd been treed and captured by an American hunter.

Ned Giles is a nice U of Chicago kid when he gets home one day to find his father dead. Alone, then bequeathed a roadster and enough money for a camera, he takes it into his head to join an expedition into Mexico he' d read about at the men's club where he works. The expedition's stated objective is to help a Mexican army unit retrieve a rancher's son kidnapped by a band of Apaches. While the call is to "gentlemen"--connected and/or wealthy by definition--Ned determines to join it as the tour photographer.

With introductory letters in hand from the club bigwigs he'd handed towels to (in support of one of the book's themes--class--they quite happily smoke Cuban cigars as the rest of the country begs spare-a-dime), Ned heads south.

At the staging area in Douglas, he is befriended by the trip's designated photographer, who inflates Ned's résumé and gets him hired on, too. As The Great Apache Expedition loads up--cooks, wranglers, animals and one personal valet in tow--it more resembles an afternoon hunt than a military exercise. And when they get on the road, it's more a Chamber of Commerce parade.

Ned soon falls in with a group of the non-gentlemen sort--a female anthropology student, the flamboyantly gay son of a railroad magnate, Son's English valet and a Mexican boy they can't shake. Their company will expand to include two Apache scouts.

When the Apache girl's story and Ned's cross, the Great Expedition becomes this group's adventure. As their purposes are fundamentally at odds with those of the self-promoting organizers and glory-seeking military, the story's conflict is in motion.

Unfortunately, the story has to step over its own feet to get to that point. It stumbles as it opens, with a 1999 frame unnecessary to the 1932 setting, and a stuttering series of setting and point-of-view shifts. Then it plods for too many pages. To be fair, however, the layers of tales Fergus begins with set the stage for a final surprise, and the slow beginning is told by the naïve, non-ironic voice of Gatsby's Nick-like Ned--which does develop character.

But, once action kicks in, Ned's crew--all outsiders in one social or cultural way or another--prove an entertaining group. If Fergus resorts to stereotype for some of his characters (Son in his outrageous white Buffalo Bill getup, for example), we nonetheless appreciate them. Fergus nicely differentiates characters by attitude and voice (the worldly anthropologist Mag serves as an ironic foil to earnest Ned), and la niña bronca herself is beautifully drawn. Ned and she create a lovely, if ephemeral, mini-Eden in the space between their cultures.

"Space" in a number of manifestations--the objective distance established between action and the photographer by his lens, between the culture and the anthropologist by her science, even the space between reality and perceptions of reality--is a central, thoughtful concern of The Wild Girl. Other strengths of the book--thorough research, vivid description of the Sierra Madre, a sympathetic but clear-eyed depiction of Apache customs and fighting and raiding practices--serve it up to a satisfying finish.

So, if you give books the 10-page test, one couldn't recommend The Wild Girl to you. If you go to 100, you should be along for an engaging ride.

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