Not long ago, I met an actual wolf: a tame one, adopted as a two-month-old and now 13 months. He pressed up against me like any eager dog as I stroked his rough, abundant coat. Only his strange yellow eyes gave away his feral origins. Was I right to be so trusting?
In a word, yes. Wolves have a bad rep. Despite considerable efforts to educate the public about the complex behavior of a pack, big and bad are still the words most often associated with these extraordinary creatures.
That could change, though, now that Jodi Picoult is on their side.
"Two crucial mysteries keep the tension high right up to the final chapters.... But the book’s strongest aspect is definitely the wolf lore that Picoult weaves into the narrative."
In LONE WOLF, her new novel, Picoult tells the fascinating fact-based story of a man who gets himself accepted as a member of a wild pack: in effect, an alternative family. She puts this same man in a coma following a traumatic brain injury in a road accident and shows us how his human family reacts to the question of whether to let him die or keep him on life support. It’s kind of “Nature”meets “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Picoult, as any faithful reader will know, is nearly always inspired by some hot-button issue --- from gay rights (SING YOU HOME) to Asperger’s Syndrome (HOUSE RULES), from high-school shootings (NINETEEN MINUTES) to teenage suicide (THE PACT). Her gift is to make these controversies live through a set of strong, likable, imperfect characters and to devise plot lines that take the reader on a suspenseful and emotionally satisfying journey.
LONE WOLF is no exception. As in most of Picoult’s novels, the point of view shifts from one character to another, so that we get a multidimensional view of the goings-on. Luke Warren, lying in Intensive Care, is represented here by excerpts from his bestselling book about living with wolves. His children, who disagree violently about what is to be done, are 17-year-old Cara, who was in the car with him but survived relatively unscathed; and Edward, 24, who has just returned from Thailand, where he was teaching English. (I really like the fact that Edward’s sexual orientation --- he’s gay --- does not become a key plot point; it’s just one of several facts about him.) Luke’s ex-wife, Georgie, tries to support both kids (no mean feat under the circumstances), while her second husband, lawyer Joe Ng, defends Edward when Cara connives to accuse him of attempted murder. Although that charge gets dismissed, there is still a climactic courtroom scene (a Picoult trademark) that will determine who, Edward or Cara, will be Luke’s legal guardian and decide his fate.
Two crucial mysteries keep the tension high right up to the final chapters. First, what actually happened six years ago between Luke and Edward, causing the latter to leave home and thus --- in Cara’s eyes --- precipitating Luke’s own departure? Second, what occurred in the car between Cara and Luke just before the accident (she had been at a party that night, drinking, and he had come to pick her up)?
But the book’s strongest aspect is definitely the wolf lore that Picoult weaves into the narrative. (The source, according to the blog on her website, is Shaun Ellis, a man who joined a pack in British Columbia and lived to tell the tale in his own nonfiction books.) Even the Warren children have learned to think in wolfish terms: Edward ponders the irony that Luke’s condition has forced the family to make decisions together. “Go figure. My father’s finally taught us how to function like a pack.”
Okay, maybe Picoult’s message about wolf life vs. human culture is somewhat heavy handed. Each of Luke’s chapters ends with a pronouncement that ties the two together. The shifting power relations within the Warren family during this crisis are presented as analogous to various roles within a wolf pack. I think we would have gotten the point without quite so much underlining.
Nonetheless, the novel contains tons of brilliant stuff I never knew about wolf behavior. A sampling:
It doesn’t begin and end with alphas: The alpha wolf is the brains of the outfit, but there is also the beta wolf, the enforcer; the wary tester wolf, who scouts for change or threat to the pack; and the diffuser wolf, or peacemaker, who breaks up fights with humor. (By the way, the alpha in Luke’s pack is female.)
Random violence is not the wolf way. Prey is carefully selected by the alpha, and she signals with her tail to let the hunters of the pack know the plan of attack. They will strike only when she says.
All howls are not alike: “There are three types of howls,” Picoult writes in her blog. “A rallying howl, which is a vocal beacon to bring back a missing member of the pack; a locating howl, which is like a voice message to give the placement of any pack that’s in the area…; and finally, a defensive howl, which is much deeper, and used to protect your territory.”
Wolves are honest: Animal interactions are direct --- no diplomacy, no decorum, no crap. When Luke returns to “civilization” after his time with the pack, he says, “I had forgotten how many lies it takes to build a relationship.”
Wolves are psychic: “Wolves can read emotion and illness the way humans read headlines,” Cara says. Case in point: A disabled, wheelchair-bound 10-year-old boy who has never spoken utters his first word after a healing encounter with a wolf.
Even allowing for a bit of idealization, this beleaguered species does sound smart and even admirable, with a remarkably intense and protective sense of family. In LONE WOLF, Picoult seems to be saying that when it comes to the right to die --- what to do about a beloved but no longer functioning member of one’s tribe --- wolves often have more civilized notions than humans.
Take that, Little Red Riding Hood!
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on March 2, 2012