Review: History of Wolves

I’ve recently finished reading Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, a new adult literary fiction book. This one is set in northern Minnesota, which is rare for a novel and personally interesting to me because I’ve been to that part of the state and have spent a lot of time in other parts of Minnesota, as well. Also, one of the cover blurbs calls the book’s pages “haunted,” which was all the encouragement I needed for a book about a teen finding disaster in “Nowheresville.”

FullSizeRender (7)About the book: Madeline (Linda) is a fifteen year-old girl (in the central thread of the book’s mixed chronology) struggling through school. She lives deep in the woods where even the snow plows won’t go, sometimes taking an hour or more to walk straight home from her bus stop after classes. Her parents live in a cabin on the site of a disbanded commune they once helped found and have a very hands-off approach to parenting. Then there’s the fact that one of the teachers who works closely with Linda is arrested for child pornography. But most importantly of all, the biggest event in her life is the tragic death of 4 year-old Paul, the son of the new neighbors who move into the fancy house across the lake from Linda. She babysits him all summer between ninth and tenth grade, and maybe she could have done something to save him; but the fact of the matter is that he’s dead by fall, and Linda will never be the same.

Linda states early in the book, during narration of her History Odyssey competition in middle school, that the history of wolves doesn’t really have anything to do with human history–and it doesn’t, at least in the way the judges mean. And yet, the wolves and the general wildness of northern Minnesota have everything to do with what happens to the humans in this book. Linda’s life, like the wolves’ lives, is about instinct and survival. It’s about the fine line between predator and prey.

“I wasn’t scared, though. I didn’t need to think of myself as a walleye drifting along in a current somewhere, just waiting for my hook. I was yearning for it.”

The thing about teenagers is that they’re eager for motion–their lives are on the verge of becoming their own and they’re waiting for something to happen that’ll tip them over the edge into adulthood. Linda finds herself inexplicably drawn to the story of her arrested history teacher and the girl in her class who spoke against him. She’s almost obsessed with the story, following their lives after everything happens at school and writing letters even years later. She was so close to it all, and there’s so little she has to be close to. The woods are isolating for Linda, and for everyone in her town.

“Heaven and hell are ways of thinking. Death is the false belief that anything could ever end.”

I liked the relationships in this book. They felt awkward and uncommon, not the storybook kind of love that lots of books seem to strive for. There’s something unusual in the relationship between Linda’s parents, for starters, apparent in the fact that they helped found a commune but also in how they continue their lives and behave around their daughter as she’s growing up. The relationship Linda sees between Leo and Patra (her new neighbors) is strange, as well. First, there’s the fact that Leo is largely absent although he’s a big part of their lives. Then here’s Linda’s infatuation with Patra. Linda doesn’t have many good adult role models in her life, and her respect for Patra, combined with Patra’s interest in Linda’s approval, leave Linda with an almost romantic attachment to Patra. They’re close friends in an odd way for young women eleven years apart in age and Linda doesn’t quite seem to know how to categorize her regard for Patra. Then in the latest parts of the timeline, Linda shows bits of her relationship with Rom, which is also an unexpected sort of love. Linda thinks he isn’t quite right for her, and maybe that’s true, but they make an oddly compelling pair. These relationships reminded me of relationships in reality–they’re often more one-sided than fictional romance, or crop up between the wrong people, or happen without intent from either party.

“It’s weird how joy goes through a grown man’s face, so that for a second you can see him the way he was as a kid: all smooth faced and unguarded.”

The narration in this book is always focused on Linda’s life and observations, but it skips around between years in her chronology to focus on different players and events. We mainly see Paul’s fate in the summer of Linda’s fifteenth year, but mixed with it we also see what happened earlier with the arrested history teacher and later the fate of Linda’s own family and childhood home after she’s grown up and tried to move on. The timeline skips around, and while everything connects, I did find the later details of Linda’s life less interesting until the causes and affects of Paul’s death become more clear in the fifteen year-old part of Linda’s story.

“Everything she did, she did when she should have known better.”

This quote (above) shows the aspect that reminded me most of Emma Cline’s The Girls. There’s that awkward period in growing up when a person starts to realize how the world works and that they have responsibilities in it but they aren’t quite ready or sure of how to handle things. There’s no smooth transition between cared-for child and responsible adult in reality–at some point, the child sees the burden of responsibility waiting there to be picked up, neglected and accumulating on the ground where no one else can reach this particular bundle. Stories like History of Wolves explore the possibility of a burden of responsibility presenting itself before the child is grown enough to spot the burden and lift it him-/herself. Linda might have saved Paul’s life, if she’d been a little more equipped to deal with that task. Sometimes in life we fail, and we blame ourselves even though there was nothing else we knew to do to prevent that failure. That is where the sadness resides in this book.

“Dawn is a free pass. I’ve always thought that. The hours between four and seven belong to a few fidgety birds and maybe a last bat charging mosquitoes.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was in a mild reading slump with this book, so even though it was short it took me about a week to finish. I don’t think that affected my opinions of the story itself and I don’t think it was at all the fault of this book. In any case, while the plot moved slowly for me at points, I did find the emotions of the story particularly moving and I’m glad I finally managed to find my way through to the end. I’ll be interested to see what works Fridlund might publish in the future.

Further recommendations:

  1. Emma Cline’s The Girls would be a great choice for readers who find Linda’s character and situation compelling. This one is centered around a cult rather than a commune, but features the same sort of inquisitive, inexperienced girl who’s trying to find her way in life by following people who shouldn’t ever have been leaders.
  2. Alice Hoffman’s Faithful is a novel for the reader who devours stories of unstoppable tragedy and its aftermath. This one has the same gritty sadness as History of Wolves, with a bit more redemption discovered before the final page is reached.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, a collection of retold myths about the infamous Odin, Thor, and Loki, among other mythological Norse characters. This is a book about power and destiny, rebuilt from the ashes of ancient lore and culture. I loved it, and can’t wait to share.


The Literary Elephant


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