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Swim Home: Searching for the Wild Girl of Champagne

Adult; Memoir; (Publish)

In September 1731, a feral child emerged from the woods in the Champagne region of France. Clothed in animal skins, with matted, unkempt hair, and wielding a small club, she ran like a hare, climbed trees like a cat, and ate leaves and raw meat. But who was Memmie LeBlanc? Where had she come from? How had she survived on her own in the wild? From the very first, mystery and controversy swirled around her and it still rages, as playwright Kathleen McDonnell discovers nearly three centuries later, when she begins researching the Wild Girl for a play. On a journey from the vineyards of France, to a Native-run casino in the American heartland of Iowa, and back to the catacombs of Paris, McDonnell begins to feel she’s living in a detective novel with bizarre, comic twists, startling revelations, and a colorful cast of characters; a librarian, a small-town mayor, a champagne vigneron, a surgeon-turned-amateur-historian, an Australian journalist, a feminist professor—a group spanning three continents. Driven by a strong sense of kinship with the tragic Memmie LeBlanc—especially their shared love of cold-water swimming–McDonnell works for years writing an honor-winning historical play, but comes to realize there is another story begging to be told, involving academic rivalries, disappearing websites, small-town politics, and dark, brutal Canadian history. Swim Home is the fascinating result.
Playwright McDonnell (Emily Included) mixes memoir with research as she digs into stories about a famous “feral child” found in 1731 Champagne, France. While writing a play about the girl, whose name was Marie-Angélique, McDonnell discovers that little reliable information about her exists. The general consensus is she was an Indigenous girl, possibly from northern Ontario, whose mother gave her to the French to save her from starvation. (McDonnell also learns that the young girl may have come from the Meskwaki people, in the same part of eastern Iowa as her own relatives.) Once in France, Marie-Angélique was sent to work in a silk factory, from which she ran away and proceeded to live in the woods for perhaps as long as 10 years, eating small animals and sleeping in trees. The author’s play is excerpted at the end, and portrays an older Marie-Angélique jumping into the Seine and swimming home. While much of the subject’s identity remains a mystery, McDonnell’s storytelling is vivid. This is a curious page–turner. (Self-published)