Review by Helena Barrell
History of Wolves is an unusual coming-of-age novel, partly due to its teenage narrator Linda, who has been brought up by her parents on an abandoned hippie commune in the backwoods of northern Minnesota. Linda is an outsider at school, where she is commonly referred to as a ‘Commie’ or ‘Freak’. Back at home, her parents offer her little warmth or affection; she is unsure whether they are even her own parents or simply the people left to look after her when all the other hippies had deserted the commune. Within their rural habitat, she is raised to chop wood and gut fish from a young age and knows the harsh yet magnificent setting like the back of her hand.
Towards the beginning of the novel, Linda’s history teacher asks her to be the school’s representative in the local History Odyssey tournament. Rather than preparing a speech on the topics suggested to her such as Vietnam War registers or border crossings to Canada, Linda instantly settles on the more outlandish subject of the history of wolves. She describes how on the morning of the tournament, she sawed a branch from an old pine behind her house which she then ‘props against the lectern to create the crucial atmosphere.’ Meanwhile, a tape of howling wolves plays on repeat as the soundtrack to her speech. During her talk, Linda highlights a particular quote she found in a book: ‘An alpha animal may only be alpha at certain times for a specific reason.’ Uttering these words has a tantalising effect over her, causing her to feel like she is ‘drinking something cool and sweet, something forbidden.’ Their meaning resounds throughout the rest of the story, as themes such as hidden power, ongoing battles for control and passive bystanders are frequently drawn upon. After Linda’s speech, one of the judges dismissively asks, ‘What do wolves have to do with human history?’ She retorts, ‘Wolves have nothing at all to do with humans, actually. If they can help it, they avoid them.’ This reply immediately reveals the hidden alpha dominance that Linda herself has in spite of the senior position and patronising tone of the older man in front of her. It also reinforces her alienated role as a loner in society, who learns just as much from the challenging natural landscape she immerses herself in as she does from the many books she regularly borrows from her school’s library.
The story’s plot centres around the relationship that Linda develops with a family who have recently moved across the river from her house. The father of the family, Leo, is an enigmatic figure who is initially always absent due to his demanding job in Hawaii. On the other hand, Linda develops a close attachment with the four-year-old son Paul and in particular his mother Patra, when she takes up a job at their home as a babysitter. Linda is fascinated by the intimate bond that Patra and Paul share and which she has never been able to develop with her own mother. She relishes the rare feeling of inclusion she experiences at their home where they both treat her with tender appreciation. However, this peaceful atmosphere is overshadowed by the knowledge that is revealed to readers in the novel’s second paragraph that Paul is doomed to die. Teasing references are periodically made in Linda’s retrospective narration to the trial that will follow this momentous event. This insight prevents readers from letting themselves feel happy for Linda in her newfound role. Indeed, the novel takes a turn for the worst when Leo finally returns from Hawaii and his sinister presence pervades the previously harmonious household.
I really enjoyed this novel, particularly for its cutting descriptions of the brutal landscape in which Linda lives. The simultaneous beauty and cruelty of the wild woods reflect the challenging lives of the story’s characters, particularly for Linda who in finding her first slice of happiness also becomes a passive witness of a horrific crime. These powerful descriptions of Linda’s surroundings remind us that it is nature which ultimately assumes alpha dominance. The plot did seem overly drawn out at times, slowly building up a sense of momentum which was not quite fully satisfied in its final scenes. Nevertheless, I was really impressed by this story, especially as it is the debut novel of author Emily Fridlund. Its haunting atmosphere stayed with me after I had finished it, which I always think is a sign of a skilfully-told book.