Wild Angel by Pat Murphy is a book by a favorite science fiction author I have been saving since it came out in paperback in 2000. (Yes, I know it was a long time ago!)
When Sarah McKensie’s parents are murdered in 1850 California, the young girl is saved by a mother wolf and raised in the pack. Part Mowgli, part Tarzan of the Apes, Sarah becomes the Wild Angel of the Sierras, rescuing those in need, while eluding her parents’ killer, a man who still wants to see her dead. Sarah lives with the wolves, hunts with the wolves, fights for dominance in the pack. She watches people from a distance, but she does not think of herself as one of them. She belongs to the pack. How can such a child be reclaimed for civilization?
As a kid, I read The Jungle Book and Tarzan of the Apes over and over and over again, but as you might imagine, the racism and colonialism in those stories is intolerable for me as an adult. I love the idea of a female wild child, set in the American version of a fantastical wilderness, as commentary on those earlier works. Murphy avoids racist stereotypes unless accurately portraying the racism exhibited by White people as part of the setting. California is depicted as a place and state of mind, clearly set apart from “civilization” in the opening chapters, as characters refer to “The States” and the rarity of (white) women in California is emphasized.
Sarah McKensie, a toddler when her parents are killed, learns to survive through being taught first by the wolves, then by observation of humans, then later by human mentors. There are two sympathetic Native American characters in minor but significant roles who avoid Magical status by surviving, but I was disappointed when both faded out of the story halfway through; Malila’s human companionship and mentoring of Sarah is replaced with Max’s in the third section, and we do not see her again. It might be true to the genre Murphy is riffing on, but I can’t help but wish there had been more of Malila’s and Sarah’s friendship.
I tore right through this book. There are unlikely events and coincidences, dated portrayals of wild animal behavior, and Primitive Innocence exhibited by the heroine, just as in Tarzan. Sarah gets an Animal Companion, the wolf Beka. There’s a cameo by Samuel Clemens, whose Mark Twain quotes are used as epigraphs for each chapter. There’s a clearly-defined enemy who remains a threat throughout the book, a sub-plot featuring the artist and writer Max, Clampers, and eventually an elephant. It was fun.
As a side note, Wild Angel is part of a meta-fictional project as well; it’s second in a trilogy and is supposed to have been written by Mary Maxwell, who is a pseudonym of Max Merriwell (whose avatar appears in the book as the character named Max), who is actually Pat Murphy, a real person whom I have met. None of this affected my reading of the book as a rollicking adventure story, but perhaps when I finally read the other books in the trilogy, I will become enlightened in some way. Here’s an essay by Wendy Pearson at Strange Horizons on this topic.
Finally, I think Wild Angel could be compared in interesting ways with Wild Life by Molly Gloss, also published in 2000. Gloss’ book set in 1905 and features a lost child, Sasquatch mythology, and a woman who wears trousers and writes adventure stories. I highly recommend both!