The preface of the book starts with an article about the ‘Real Life Mowgli’, a wild-haired six- to eight-year-old who had been living in the forest near Westville, New Jersey. Apart from, of course, the Jungle Book story, it occurred to me that I had heard a story like this before … or was it just an urban legend? After some investigation I see that there have been at least eight cases like this, most of which have been in India, where children can speak and understand the language, but have no knowledge of who they actually are or their heritage.
From the start the story fascinated me, but would this novel just be the story of him, the boy from the woods, known as Wilde, trying to solve the mystery of himself? Clearly, being a Harlan Coben book, it wasn’t going to be. Fast forward fourteen years: Wilde has moved on with his life and become a decorated soldier, now preferring to once again live alone in the outdoors, having contact with only a few people whom have touched his life over the years.
A teenage girl, Naomi, who has been bullied and ostracized at school, stops attending. One of her friends, Matthew, who feels that he has not done enough to curb the bullying or to help her through it, is concerned for her safety and calls in help from his grandma, Hestor, an attorney who does legal segments on the TV. After an announcement on her show about the ‘missing’ girl where she asks the public for help, she enlists Wilde’s help to find her. But Naomi turns out to have faked her disappearance. Wilde who finds her in a most unusual place, has an understanding of how Naomi is feeling, since both she and he are adopted. He tries to help her. However, when both she and another boy in her class, Crash, the son of a well-to-do family, both go missing around the same time, Wilde is again called in to help find them. His skills and knowledge of the nearby forest prove to be important in the search.
As is typical in Harlan Coben’s universe, nothing is ever straightforward. There are lies and secrets which will haunt both the children’s families. Some even touch upon national politics. With references to Trump, and the next presidential nominee, Rusty Eggers, espionage is woven into the story as well. It is a sad indictment that the term ‘Presidential’ has now acquired negative connotations, even, sometimes, the candidates. As a result, in our current situation, there is an obvious negative political undertone in Coben’s story which cannot be mistaken.
As Hestor and Wilde delve into the disappearances, one of which has become a kidnapping ransom case, they discover things about themselves and each other in the process. They need to race against the clock to ensure that the children are safe. But they also need to determine how much they want to know about past events for their lives to change, possibly forever.
The Boy from the Woods is a great read. As always, Coben’s writing is taut and succinct, well written, with twists and suspense along the way, as his story reveals more secrets about a group of powerful and affluent people. I can thoroughly recommend it. I can imagine that this novel could easily be adapted into another Netflix drama, like Safe and The Stranger, both based on novels by Coben which I have recently watched. We can hope.
Harlan Coben introduces the concept for The Boy From the Woods
An illustration from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, featuring Mowgli, a boy who is raised in the forest by animals. Instances of children being raised in the wild were part of the inspiration for Harlan Coben's The Boy From the Woods