Everybody loves The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, and I think it has earned our affections – and awards. The story is finally less straightforward than you would imagine from its cover, and lingers in some pretty unlikely places, and doesn’t linger in some others, so kudos to Mordecai Gerstein for saddling up this legend to reach a wider audience - without, significantly, betraying his freaky fascinations.
These have variously ranged between the story of Sparrow Jack who imported that species of bird from his native England to Philadelphia where inchworms were tearing it up, to a version of the Selkie legend (in Gerstein’s transporting, if wincingly cruel The Seal Mother), and The Mountains of Tibet about a boy growing up in the Himalayas who dreams of traveling to faraway places - then doesn’t, like Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” only nobody throws any parties for him, he just dies.
Which is sort of a bugaboo for picture books, I know, only the choices presented this erstwhile woodcutter for a second chance – blue planet or red, city or jungle, seagull or human - are progressively engrossing, and this book is finally as calm and as level-headed as any you will read about the subject of death for any age. Relax! It’s fantasy for heaven sakes. As all of our second lives are. Regardless the church that you go to.
Still, as many times as we have returned to this book in my family, I could not banish from my imagination the picture of Gerstein draped in saffron, flowing robes and otherworldly composure - at least before that fisherman went and kidnapped the poor Selkie. This author can go from mystic to tragic to downright sunny in a second, indeed he even seems to relish the opportunity, so what then to expect in a story about a foundling dragged from the forest in France at the dawn of the nineteenth century?
In big box stores and neighborhood libraries you may still find a couple of copies of The Mountains of Tibet wedged beside The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, but Gerstein’s The Wild Boy appears to have almost completely vanished from circulation since shortly after its publication in 1998; when I stumbled upon it a couple of years ago in a second hand basket, there seemed even the thrilling possibility this was something which had slipped past the censors, or anyway whatever literary establishments have appointed themselves the guardians of our children’s happy feelings.
The story starts joyously enough with the long-haired, naked boy of the title striding across rocky cliffs, and stuffing his face full of berries, and running breathlessly through snowy nights. “He didn’t seem to feel the cold,” explains Gerstein, but of course he probably did. The trick was not knowing anything else.
Intruding upon this Edenic idyll are three hunters and their dogs who drag the wild boy to civilization – all the way to Paris eventually, where he became famous as L’Enfant Sauvage, embellished in the popular imagination with claws and fur and tail. Here he was studied, and prodded, and yelled at in the Institute for Deaf-Mutes. No reaction. But he thrilled to the sound of cracking walnuts in another room.
And the smell of potatoes baked on coals, and the sight of the moon, and the feel of the wind. He otherwise appeared to represent a lost cause to all but a young doctor and his housekeeper who taught him to distinguish the advantages of warm over cold, company over solitude, order over chaos, and even the rudimentary shapes and meanings of written words.
Still Victor, as he came to be called, never did learn how to speak, and remained in many ways unreachable, melancholy, a mixed and misguided result. Would he have been better off left in the forest? Gerstein isn’t saying, but he leaves us with the not exactly reassuring picture of Victor in the evenings pressing the doctor’s hand hard against his forehead and eyes, possibly wishing before bedtime that it would all just go away.
There are only thirty or so hardcovers available here and through Amazon, which remains kind of amazing to me, and kind of depressing, when you consider the enduring value of something you can read over and over and still feel off guard by the ending. I go back and forth in my reactions – sometimes moved almost to tears (but not quite - because the children are looking!) by the unspeakable sadness of failing to lift up another human being, then sometimes to giddy optimism by the fact of scientists and educators and, yes, the odd artist, still trying.
Victor spent too many years in the wild, it turned out, for all of his deficits to be completely reversed. Some people may read into this a cautionary fable about early intervention and educational reforms – and that would be all right. Some people may notice too much fussing and fixing for their comfort, and wonder what kind of a message that sends to the children, but the strongest messages of all, I’d submit, are the ones that get lost in the mail.
Some people may see a good yarn. My edition of The Wild Boy is missing its dust jacket – sparing me probably many blurby knee jerks like “bittersweet” – and crayoned instead on its cover with green and black X’s and A’s, like somebody practicing their alphabet. This book was owned, was used, discarded. Was possibly unloved. Yeah, well, their loss. And our surprise. Is there any truer calling for a classic?