Second Nature

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In SECOND NATURE, Alice Hoffman tells as inventive a story as she did in SEVENTH HEAVEN (1990) and TURTLE MOON (1992). Again, by inserting an alien element into a static society, she forces her characters to confront their world and themselves. This time the outsider is Stephen, who has been reared by wolves in the Michigan wilderness. Rescuing him from a Manhattan hospital, the tender-hearted Robin Moore takes Stephen to her nearby island home, where she conceals him until he is ready to enter local society.

Nevertheless, Robin underestimates the power of nature, which propels the two into a passionate love affair, while at the same time beckoning Stephen back to the wilderness. The very natural passion of jealousy also motivates Robin’s estranged husband Roy Moore, a police officer, to look for something in Stephen’s past which could discredit him. If he is found to be the missing “Wolf Man,” Stephen will lose his freedom. Still another threat comes from a member of one of the island’s most respected families, who commits a series of sadistic killings and casts the blame on Stephen. Here the weakness of civilization becomes evident. Only Stephen can catch the scent of blood on the murderer, and finally, only Stephen, applying the law of the pack, can punish him. Now much wiser, Roy ignores his own law in order to help Stephen escape from the island and begin his journey to Michigan. SECOND NATURE is a joy to read, convincing, exciting, and thought- provoking. In this novel, Hoffman again admits the power of evil but optimistically asserts that even within a corrupting civilization, good can prevail.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, December 15, 1993, p. 723.

The Christian Science Monitor. March 14, 1994, p. 17.

Kirkus Reviews. LXI, December 1, 1993, p. 1480.

Library Journal. CXIX, February 1, 1994, p. 112.

Los Angeles Times. March 25, 1994, p. E6.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, February 6, 1994, p. 13.

The New Yorker. LXX, April 11, 1994, p. 99.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, November 29, 1993, p. 53.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 25, 1994, p. 21.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, January 30, 1994, p. 2.

Second Nature

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In such earlier novels as Seventh Heaven (1990) and Turtle Moon (1992), Alice Hoffman demonstrated her belief that within everyday life exist all the possibilities of loathing and love, selfishness and self-sacrifice, degradation and redemption. As in those works, the characters in Second Nature are confronted with moral choices and spiritual possibilities. Now, however, they must make decisions not only between good and evil but also between two worlds, one simple and primitive, the other civilized, complex, and essentially corrupt.

Appropriately, the story begins in New York City, which can be considered either the pinnacle of civilization or the ultimate expression of its ills. The protagonist, Robin Moore, has driven in from the small island in Nassau County where she lives in order to talk with her brother, Stuart Aaron, about their grandfather Richard Aaron, who made a home for his grandchildren when their parents died but who now, at ninety-one, is daily becoming more difficult. At the hospital where Stuart’s office is located, Robin sees the famous “Wolf Man.” After being found in a trap in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wilderness, he was brought to New York for physical treatment and psychological evaluation. It is known that he spent his formative years with wolves. Since the Wolf Man will not respond to researchers’ questions, it has been decided that he is not fit to live in society. When Robin sees him, he is in the process of being transferred to a mental institution, where presumably he will spend the rest of his life. When Robin speaks to him, evidently the Wolf Man recognizes a sympathetic spirit, and for the first time he speaks, pleading to be rescued. Robin cannot turn her back on this strange but appealing creature; she spirits him out of the hospital and takes him home with her.

Although most of the residents of Robin’s island think of themselves as poles apart from the urbanites in New York City, in fact they are not as close to nature as they would like to think. If the city represents one extreme, the Michigan wilderness where Wolf Man grew up is the other, and as both Robin and her perceptive son Connor Moore soon realize, the island is no more than a middle ground. Except for a few free spirits, such as Robin, Connor, Richard, and Robin’s former father-in-law, the islanders are as bound by convention as anyone in Manhattan. Therefore, if the Wolf Man is to be safe among them, not only must his actual identity be concealed, but he must also learn to behave like Robin’s neighbors, lest they sense his difference and turn upon him.

Fortunately, the Wolf Man, who remembers being called Stephen, is highly intelligent. It does not take him long to learn how to dress, how to eat, how to speak, read, and write, even how to play chess. Stephen’s grasp of suburban manners is tested at a Memorial Day party, where Robin introduces him as a horticulture student serving an apprenticeship with her. To her delight, no one suspects that he is not what he appears to be. Even Robin’s brother Stuart sees nothing in this civilized young man to remind him of the wild creature who was once his patient.

Once Stephen has successfully slipped into his new identity, thus outwitting his pursuers, the focus of the novel shifts. Yet instead of being diminished once the immediate crisis has passed, the suspense is heightened, for now the major characters are shown struggling not with outsiders, who are easily deceived, but with their own primal urges.

Not surprisingly, it is Stephen who most fully comprehends the importance of what human beings call the animal side of their nature. He can recognize the conflict between his instincts, upon which the wolves base their hopes of survival, and his reason, which tells him in human society he can fulfill his desires only by masking them. When Stephen is hungry, he would like to hunt and kill; however, he cannot chase his prey but must wait patiently for meat to be killed by others, then purchased and prepared. It is even more difficult for someone reared in the wilderness to control his sexual desires. At night he is tormented by his desire to walk down the hall to Robin’s room, but again he knows that if he is ever to have her, he must hide his desperate need.

Stephen does not at first realize, however, that the human beings among whom he lives may be just as strongly influenced by their instincts as he is. Admittedly, Robin has no interest in hunting; indeed, she has managed to conquer her taste for meat and is now a vegetarian. It is not so easy, though, for a human being to deny the need for a mate. In her lonely bed, the civilized female is suffering no less than the primitive male. Not surprisingly, in time...

(The entire section is 1947 words.)