It is entirely the fault of the fine ladies at Smart Bitches Trashy Books that I picked up an ebook copy of Patricia Gaffney’s Wild at Heart, which showed up on Smart Bitch Candy’s list of books with Schlocky Premises But Good Executions. And let’s face it, folks, “boy raised by wolves” is a pretty schlocky premise to start with. But yeah, Smart Bitch Candy is right. Gaffney pulled off a surprisingly charming little novel here.
It’s 1893, and Sydney Darrow, after the death of her young husband, has come back to her family home in Michigan to find that her absent-minded anthropologist father is involved with an astonishing discovery: the so-called “Ontario Man”, a young man who’s been found in the Canadian wilderness, apparently raised by wolves. Her father and his assistant Charles are caught up in researching whether a man in a feral state can exhibit true altruism, but Sydney is appalled that they’ve given him a churl of a guard to keep watch on him and that they’ve given him only the rudiments of interaction with his own kind. With her little brother’s help, Sydney soon discovers that “Ontario Man” can actually talk–he just needs to be reminded of it–and she coaxes him into revealing that his name is Michael MacNeil.
Once Michael starts talking, the story gets its feet under it. We learn he was lost as a boy, late enough in his childhood that he’d not only learned how to talk and read, he’d even clung to a treasured book on gentleman’s etiquette that his father had given him. All of which is Oh So Convenient for explaining why he’s not really feral, but it does actually work, and it also sets Michael up for having some very unsophisticated, innocent sensibilities–which is a bit of a switch for romance novels. There’s quite a bit of sweet mileage with Sydney’s younger brother, who is himself a boy, introducing Michael to the city and teaching him things more easily than the adults, since Michael’s forgotten many things that only a child would think to have to explain. His chemistry with Sydney is equally straightforward and refreshingly innocent, and that went a long way to my enjoyment of the plot. (I was particularly amused by one scene where he laments, “Why do you have so many clothes on? Can’t you take some off?”)
Things come to a head when the family makes the mistake of trying to introduce Michael to a zoo, and he flips right out, deciding to singlehandedly release every animal he can get to in one night and thereby causing an uproar in the city. Sydney has to juggle resolving that uproar with tracking down Michael’s long-lost family, and there’s quite a bit of nice tension around that. There is of course a happy ending; this is after all a romance novel. But all in all the trip getting there was quite satisfying. Four stars.