Young doctor Jean-Marc Itard is serving in the Paris home for deaf-mute children. When a “wild boy” without speech is found near a village in Aveyron, France, Itard accepts the challenge of educating him. Many senior colleagues, including Philippe Pinel, opine that it will be impossible, even when Itard determines that the boy is not deaf. The lad, now named Victor, seems to be about ten years old, but his small size owing to malnutrition may be deceptive; he quickly reaches puberty. Helped by the care and empathy of the home’s housekeeper, Madame Guérin, and Julie, her daughter, Victor learns to perform several domestic tasks but manages to speak only a few words.

 His situation is a mystery. Caregivers marvel at how he had been able to survive alone in the woods for several years. They wonder if he ran away from an abusive home, or if he was deliberately abandoned because of his disability. A crisis emerges when a woman appears claiming to be his relative. Itard eventually abandons the effort to educate Victor, but he is allowed to continue living with the Guérins.


Based on the true story of J.-M. Itard (1774-1838) and the “wild boy of Aveyron” (1788?-1828), this novel draws on extant records and recent scholarly works, supplying missing details and a credible portrayal of early nineteenth-century Paris, still recovering from the trauma of the Revolution and Terror. Victor develops a strong affection for Julie Guérin. Often the practical responses of the two women are more effective in communicating with him than the scientifically informed methods of Dr. Itard. The episode has attracted the interest of historians and film-makers, including François Truffaut. Together with recent observers, Dawson plausibly imagines Victor as being neurodiverse -- having what would now be called autism, long before the formal clinical descriptions of Eugen Bleuler (1910), Grunya Sukhareva (1925), Hans Asperger (1938) and Leo Kanner (1943). Itard is recognized as one of the first physicians to develop special education for the deaf.


Hodder and Stoughton

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