Though Wild Angel
, Pat Murphy's frontier fantasy, deals with both wolves and westward expansion, readers of her lycanthrope novel Nadya
should not expect a retread. This playful homage to the Tarzan books and American tall tales travels a lighter, more sparkling road.
Set in the California gold country between 1850 and 1863, the novel follows the adventures of Sarah McKensie, orphaned at age 3 by a stagecoach robber. Sarah is adopted and nursed by the she-wolf Wauna (who has lost her litter of pups to the same brutal man) and is accepted into the wolf pack. As she matures, Sarah learns to assist in the pack's well-being by contributing human tools--a found knife, a bow and arrow, and a lariat stolen from a would-be cowpoke--to the hunt.
With her best friend and pack-sister Beka at her side, Sarah becomes a local legend--the Wild Angel of the Sierras, rescuer of imperiled travelers. Sarah's altruism is motivated less by compassion than by curiosity, bafflement by the settlers' inability to perceive the world around them, and a passion for biscuits.
Surrounding Sarah is a kaleidoscopic cast: an artist with a shady past; a young Indian shaman; a mesmerist-cum-temperance crusader; a circus impresario with a pack of poodles and an elephant named Ruby; a young woman on the lam from her strait-laced aunt; the hilarious fraternal order E Clampus Vitus (or "Clampers"); Samuel Clemens (in a brief and thwarted cameo); and, of course, two hiss-worthy villains--one human, one lupine.
Throughout this tale of coincidence, chance reunions, heroism, villainy, romance, revenge, and adventure, Murphy weaves deft comedic touches--including Sarah's unforgettable improvisation during a staging of "The Drunkard." Even the one continuity blip near the end of the novel reads not as authorial carelessness but as a knowing wink to the plot-and-character-juggling serial writers of the past.
Murphy has written Wild Angel as a novel by alter-ego/imaginary friend Max Merriwell written as Mary Maxwell. The conceit isn't necessary for enjoyment of the novel, but the three explanatory afterwords, by Maxwell, Merriwell, and Murphy, are pure jam.
Before embarking upon this delightful novel, readers would be well advised to check their realism at the door and adopt the motto of the Clampers--Credo Quia Absurdum, "I believe because it is absurd." --Eddy Avery
From Publishers Weekly
Murphy's previous novel, There and Back Again, paid homage to Frank L. Baum's Oz books. Her latest volume continues the tradition, this time looking back to Edgar Rice Burroughs's legendary Tarzan series (plus a good dash of Mark Twain). Rachel and William McKenzie are hopeful settlers in the gold fields of 1850 California, but their dreams are cut short when they're murdered in their camp not far from the boomtown of Selby. Avoiding death by hiding in a cave, their three-year-old daughter, Sarah, finds that her survival afterward depends upon the wolf pack that adopts her. Sarah avoids humanity for many years, until a chance encounter and subsequent friendship with a young Indian woman shows her that not all people are to be feared. When she saves a family in winter-shrouded Donner Pass, Sarah earns the name "The Wild Angel," but keeps to the land until she meets journalist and adventurer Max Phillips, who has been haunted by her since the day he discovered her parents' bodies but couldn't find their little girl. Sarah's friendship with Max grows over the seasons in secret, for Max suspects that the man who killed her parents is still nearby. When the secret slips out, Sarah must face her enemy and extract justice as the wolf pack has taught her. In an afterword, Murphy cites Burroughs's "shameless use of coincidence" to "arrange the characters to his liking," which is clearly the case here. This novel, lightweight compared to Murphy's earlier work, functions best as an engaging summer read.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.