Even people from slightly less remote villages in Papau New Guinea could barely imagine visiting the corner of the jungle where Sabine Kuegler grew up. The resident Fayu tribe had been engaged in decades-long civil warfare and all contact with the outside world had been forgotten. Enter a German family with three children under the age of nine and two linguist parents who are intent on documenting the Fayu language. Kuegler would later be trapped between her primitive upbringing and her European heritage; she grew up a true child of the jungle, which is the title of her memoir.
Kuegler learns to speak Fayu, shoot a bow and arrow, and always shake out her boots in case of scorpions. Though her family receives occasional supplies from the outside world, Kuegler eats a local menu: The huge red ants were quite popular and easy to find. . . . Grilled bat wings are nice and crispy. . . . ever-present grubs were another tasty alternative. She witnesses tribal warfare, the process of stealing young girls for wives, massive floods and disease, but in Child of the Jungle she focuses on the benefits of growing up in a tropical paradise.
Admitting in the preface that as an adult she is unhappy and feeling lonely and lost, lives the life of a vagabond seems a completely appropriate reaction to such a huge transition and an honest ending to a story that is incredible and very real at the same time. In spite of the compelling subject, however, the book can be disjointed at times and readers will have their curiosity unsatisfied (save for a short chapter at the end) about Kuegler's transition to a boarding school in Switzerland at age 17. In addition, although her parents were not technically missionaries, they did want to bring peace to the Fayu and their impact on the traditional way of life is completely unquestioned by their daughter. And yet, Child of the Jungle, a bestseller when published in Europe two years ago, is well worth reading.
Megan Brenn-White has written and edited for the Let's Go travel guide series.