Navigating between two worlds
Noted author Jim Fergus stops over at Maria’s for a signing

SideStory: Just the facts

by Joe Foster

The Wild Girl, Jim Fergus, 2005 Hyperion Press.

In honor of a Maria’s Bookshop visit by esteemed author, Jim Fergus, and in honor of the fact that I just happened to read the book that he’ll be reading from (and I’m supposed to write a review about something), let’s talk about The Wild Girl.

The Wild Girl refers to a young Apache girl captured by a very scary white trapper and imprisoned in a Mexican jail for the crime of being an Apache. This is the 1930s, a time when most native tribes had been confined to reservations. The wild girl’s tribe lived in a secluded area of the Sierra Madre, just across the border in Mexico. The Mexican Government had put a price on Apache scalps (a phenomenon that became the story behind Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian) and her people were either scattered or dead.

The book starts with three epigraphs that conjure thoughts of love, the perils of cultural interaction, and violence. There is a love story and violence to spare. What really interests me, though, are the dynamics behind the cultural epigraph, which goes thusly: “Can one culture use its own terms to say something about another culture without engaging in a hostile act of appropriation or without simply reflecting itself and not engaging the otherness of the Other? ... Can we ever escape our provincial islands and navigate between worlds?”

Generally an epigraph is used to set the tone of a novel, and Fergus seems to have set out with these ideas in mind, a noble and ballsy undertaking. The main character in the book is a young man named Ned Giles, and it is from his journals that the story is told. So we must ask ourselves upon completion of the novel if Giles is able to successfully navigate between worlds, or if he appropriates the Apache culture that he comes to know, or if he is unable to accept the otherness of these hunted people.


We must consider the possibility as well that Fergus may have used this epigraph as an apology of sorts. He spends much of the novel discussing a culture long-disappeared and impossibly removed from the white way of thinking. Perhaps he apologizes in advance for any faux pas committed in the story’s telling. Mere conjecture, of course.

So, Giles is a newly orphaned young man that sets out on an adventure into the Southwest, following an advertisement he saw in the Gentlemen’s Club that employed him in Chicago. The ad urges wealthy sportsmen to come to the aid of a man whose son has been kidnapped by the wild girl’s tribe. Apparently, with the genocidal practices of their neighbors, the Apaches had found it necessary to “adopt” children and women into the tribe in order to augment their dwindling numbers. Basically, these chaps, bored with hunting rhinos and lions, were to join an expedition to hunt Apaches. Tasteless, yes, but that’s the set-up. Needless to say, young Ned makes it on the expedition, yadda yadda yadda (to quote one of the greatest Seinfeld episodes of all time) he ends up married to the wild girl, living with her people, stuck between his own culture and that of his new bride.

Herein lies the navigation between worlds that the idealistic young Ned attempts. His heart is torn in so many directions that the correct thing to do is muddled and unclear, and he has the headstrong violence and self righteousness of both cultures to contend with, as well. But the question remains, does he navigate these two worlds successfully? Did young Ned appropriate this new culture, or the more romantic aspects of it as his own? Did his journals describe an utterly alien culture using his own as a mirror? I don’t know. I feel as if he did a decent job, but to be fair, that may be my own appropriative cultural mirroring techniques at work. This exercise is not for the author or characters alone. Literature is a series of dialogues between author and character, character and reader, reader and author. Perhaps it is not only Ned’s or Fergus’ mission to get things right, but our own as readers and people of conscience.

I urge you to read the novel and see for yourself, and be thoroughly entertained, as well. I also urge you to head down to Maria’s next Tuesday to meet a popular and respected Western author, and maybe even ask him yourself how he thinks Ned did on his journey. •



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