Pat Murphy, |
Pat Murphy's latest novel, Wild Angel, (also credited as by Mary Maxwell and by Max Meriwell in a playful authorial pseudonymous experiment), is the second in a trio of tales paying homage to great classics of imaginative fiction. The first, There and Back Again, was a loving pastiche of Tolkien's The Hobbit re-worked as a space opera. This one is faithful to the spirit of Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan tales and Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book Mowgli stories, with a hefty nod to Mark Twain, who is quoted in every epigraph for each chapter.
The resulting yarn, a delightful cross-genre mix with elements of mystery, western and fantasy/adventure infused with a feminist sensibility, is also a wolf-girl saga that nicely complements the entirely independent Nadya: The Wolf Chronicles (1996).
In Gold Rush California (1850), hopeful settlers Rachel and William McKenzie have their dreams cut short when they are murdered by the ruthless robber Jasper Davis in their camp not far from the boomtown of Selby. Their 3-year-old daughter, Sarah, avoids death by hiding in a cave and finds her survival dependent on a wolf pack led by the she-wolf Wauna, who adopts her. Like her special wolf-companion Beka, one of Wauna's offspring, Sarah grows wild, strong, healthy and wary of humans for many years, until a chance encounter and resulting friendship with Malila, a young Miwok Indian woman and shaman who shows her that not all people are to be feared.
Meanwhile, evidence of the crime is discovered by writer/artist Max Philips, but the perpetrator remains unknown. Max, who loves to camp and sketch in this wilderness area, occasionally glimpses Sarah, who is becoming known as the Wild Angel for her beauty, spectacular red hair and kindness to distressed travelers. Gradually Max gains Sarah's trust and friendship, for he has been haunted by her ever since the day he discovered her parent's bodies but couldn't find their little girl. He also keeps this odd friend secret, fearing that the murderer of Sarah's parents is still nearby -- which indeed he is, for Jasper Davis has been buying respectability with the proceeds of his crimes, but never forgetting that Sarah witnessed his foul deed.
In the outlandish tradition of the pulpy adventure novels on which this book draws inspiration, Sarah eventually joins a circus, meets her long-lost aunt from back east and confronts Jasper Davis in a predictable but undeniably exciting and suspenseful climax. Pat Murphy's crisp, concise prose style and authorial skill in assembling the elements of her mythical novel evokes such an appropriate atmosphere that suspension of disbelief comes effortlessly and the swift-paced narrative sucks the reader right in. Wild Angel also features vivid depictions of Gold Rush California that ring true, and contains graphic descriptions of the "nature red in tooth and claw" struggle for survival that is life in a pack of wolves as well as of the loving companionship of which these noble animals are capable. A thoughtful subtext contrasting the wilderness and Native American lifestyles in balance with the forces of nature with the exploitation of and damage to the land caused by the Anglo-American settlers and miners adds depth to the story without preachiness -- not spoiling the sheer fun of this yarn with its lovable protagonists and compelling, fanciful and ultimately heartwarming plot.
In the afterword, Murphy discusses how the layers of pseudonyms influenced her writing and how they will help to tie together There and Back Again, this book, and the next one. Meanwhile, allow Sarah, the Wild Angel -- a woman who truly runs with the wolves in every sense of those words, to run away with your heart and have a ripsnorting romp of a read while doing so!
[ by Amy Harlib ]