History of Wolves
Linda, the narrator and central figure of Emily Fridlund’s haunting debut novel, is one of the loneliest literary characters in recent memory. As a socially and physically isolated young teenager, she is an observer, at times a voyeur, who craves attention and connection, though she fears it as well. She is a ghost-like presence in HISTORY OF WOLVES, stalking the woods and lakeshore of her small Minnesota town, quietly walking the halls of her high school, unsure of her own origins and feelings. Even her name is ephemeral and slippery: She is Madeline but called Mattie by some and Linda by others. At the beginning of the story, she is interested in the relationship between a strange and lovely girl named Lily and a new teacher, Mr. Grierson. But soon she is caught up in another dangerous circumstance when a family with a small son moves in across the lake from her own home.
"Fridlund’s writing is fluid and at times arresting as she challenges the naive Linda to deal with situations bigger and more complex than any 14-year-old should face.... This is a smart, tense and very sad novel, lovely to read but also heart-wrenching."
While the rumors about Lily and Mr. Grierson begin to swirl, he asks Linda to be the school representative in History Odyssey. Instead of selecting a traditional history project, Linda chooses to research the history of wolves. This decision is typical of Linda: off-kilter, misjudged and confounding, coming from a place of both innocence and dissent. Her interest in Lily remains strong in the background of the novel, even as the adult Linda navigates work, relationships, memory and her complicated feelings for her parents.
However, with the arrival of the Gardner family --- husband Leo, wife Patra and four-year-old son Paul --- the novel and Linda’s perspective shift and tilt in new directions. With Leo away for work, Patra and Paul are lonely and unprepared for the long rural Minnesota winter. Linda starts work babysitting Paul, guiding him through the snowy and muddy woods. Her knowledge of the birds, animals and trees in the area is rich, created by her own family’s secluded backwoods lifestyle. Fridlund’s treatment of Linda’s connection to nature gives HISTORY OF WOLVES a fairytale-like tone --- lyrical and menacing at the same time. Linda proves to be a strong and at times imaginative caregiver for Paul, and perhaps the only companion Patra can count on. But Linda’s emotional longing and intellectual unsophistication mean that she ignores her instincts about the Gardners and thus is witness, and some say complicit, to a terrible and preventable tragedy.
HISTORY OF WOLVES, though short, tackles several potent themes --- from the constitution of family to the potential harm of religion, from the importance of being seen to the dangers of blind belief and dogmatism, and from sexual awakening to the meaning of home. Fridlund’s writing is fluid and at times arresting as she challenges the naive Linda to deal with situations bigger and more complex than any 14-year-old should face. Fridlund also does a good job creating an adult Linda who seems to grow realistically from the teenage one. Linda perhaps wants to embody the fierce aspects of the wolf, but in the end takes on their shadowy and even timid nature.
This is a smart, tense and very sad novel, lovely to read but also heart-wrenching.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 4, 2017
History of Wolves
- Publication Date: January 3, 2017
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
- ISBN-10: 0802125875
- ISBN-13: 9780802125873