Zimmerman draws on the disparate characteristics of East and West in the Gilded Age (circa 1875) in a mystery/romance that marries the rough-shod boom towns of the West Coast with the sophistication of New York’s elite, where a surfeit of wealth and excess crown the powerful as the royalty of a democratic society. A private train travels from New York to Virginia City, Nevada, where the fabulously wealthy Delegate family (their fortune from financial legerdemain in silver speculation) heads toward the potential discovery of a feral child starring in a back-alley sideshow.
Absorbed in the current intellectual vanities of the times, patriarch Friedrich Delegate plans to put an exclamation point on the ongoing argument of nature versus nurture in an era that features such luminaries as William James, Charles Darwin, Edith Wharton and Victoria Woodhull with her coterie of strident feminists. As frequent collectors of unusual persons—they employ Celestial Song Tu-Li and Zuni man/woman (hermaphrodite) Tahktoo—the so-called Savage Girl is of more importance by far to the Delegates, a living experiment to be gentled from savagery to civilization via education and exposure to society’s finest people.
The stage is set, the critical underpinnings of violence that define the feral girl’s existence thus far hidden in a flurry of activity, from her discovery in a cave to the elaborate, vulgar show staged by a huckster, the unwitting girl spirited off by the Delegates. Narrated by eldest son Hugh, who falls predictably under the girl’s spell, Friedrich’s potentially groundbreaking experiment is shadowed on the return trip to New York by grisly murders that follow in the wake of the train and its new passenger. The murders do not cease when the travelers reach their destination, where the girl, who has claimed the name of Bronwyn, is carefully groomed for her introduction into society.
Unlike any of the other females of his experience, Hugo cannot stop thinking about Bronwyn, despite his concerns that she might be a killer in disguise. As narrator, Hugo’s flaws are often jarring and purposefully cloudy. A frequent abuser of drink and opiates, his impressions are often colored by inaccuracy, his manhood further compromised by foppish behavior and self-doubt; his only saving grace is his willingness to sacrifice himself on Bronwyn’s behalf. In all other aspects he is ineffective, a dilettante who whiles away the hours of his life foolishly, without the stamina to complete his studies at Harvard or the courage to confront his father when the opportunity arises. (It boggles the mind that such as Hugo might be the one the bright, compassionate and beautiful Bronwyn might choose as her knight in shining armor.)
The novel, nearly 400 pages long, is embellished with the intellectual pretensions of the Gilded Age, the elitism of the uber-wealthy (and its disdain for those who suffer from poverty) and the discrepancies of experience between the East and West coasts of the continent, wherein a Savage Girl is created, later exposed by a sophisticated society as a fraud, a denouement that occurs much too precipitously. Entertaining in its wealth of historical detail (savage versus civilized, boomtown bombast versus high class glitterati), the element ingredient for the tension—the series of murders—is given short shrift with a rather casual ending: a sputtering of ellipses rather than Delegate’s exclamation point, considering the graphic nature of the killings. In the end, the lovers abandon the constraints of a morally bankrupt society and share the secrets that have made a mockery of Friedrich Delegate’s grand experiment. Zimmerman captures the spirit and energy of the times and the larger-than-life personalities of her characters, adding enough color and excitement to obscure most plot deficiencies.