History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
I came across a note on my desk that said “History Of Wolves—BRILLIANT!” It was a book I’d read four years ago and, although I evidently thought it was brilliant, I had absolutely no memory of what it was about or why I liked it. So I went to the internet to find a summary of the plot. Still, absolutely no memory of having read it. And I had no copy of it on my shelves.
So I bought a new copy and sat down to figure out what all the fuss was about. It’s about this: the book is brilliant.
The story is narrated in the first person by Linda, a fifteen-year-old girl who is lonely, capable, complicated, and lives with her parents in a ramshackle cabin in the woods with four chained up dogs and without electricity or running water.
The plot surrounds her becoming the babysitter of Paul, a four-year-old boy whose parents are…strange? and he is…sick? or maybe…not?
And, most brilliant of all, the structure of the book is wild, brave, perfect. Linda narrates the story from the vantage point of a 36-year-old person who has … survived?…the ordeal. But she tells the story as the fifteen year old in the present moment, as the thirty six year old in the present moment, as a person reflecting on memories from when she was a child, a twenty seven year old, a person testifying in court. It jumps around. A lot. And the brilliance is at least twofold (likely even more folds than that): the reader is never lost, and each memory or account fits exactly to keep the story moving forward. The story is always moving forward even though her telling of it jumps around in time.
And then, of course, there’s the writing. The gorgeous, evocative writing.
Here are some samples:
As a fifteen year old feeling her own indiscriminate sexual flares, she describes an interaction with a person who at the time she doesn’t know has sexual indiscretions with children in his past:
He bent down to brush stray needles from his slacks, and on impulse I thrust out a hand and brushed as well—swish, swish—against his thigh. He stepped back, did a little shake of his pants, laughed awkwardly. Men can become so ungainly when it comes to sex. I learned that later. But at the time, what I’d done didn’t feel sexual. Let me be clear about that. It felt like grooming. Or like coaxing a dog to you, watching its hackles rise and fall, and then you have a pet.
Describing her classmate Lily, who is in a world of trouble and likely pregnant, she gives this one detail that sums up what denial looks like:
Lily was making slow, snaking spirals with her pen, then filling in the linked loops with dozens, with hundreds of smiley faces.
Linda often goes out in her canoe to escape her life at home. But she has a sense there’s something off with the family of the four year old she babysits. One sentence gives us the whole feeling:
Teeth chattering in the canoe, I got dressed again. I paddled across the lake, washed the muck from my feet with a splash of well water, climbed the ladder to the loft over my parents’ bedroom, and masturbated, miserably, my wiry pubic hair catching between my fingers.
Miserably. What a word right there.
And here’s the heart of the matter for her, after she’s suffered through the unfolding disaster, speaking from the perspective of a person who has survived as well as she is able:
But I remember it all, even now, as if two mutually exclusive things happened. First it goes the way the prosecutors described it—nausea, headaches, coma, etcetera—and then it comes back to me the way it actually was with Patra and Paul—tall ships, car ride home, Good King Wenceslas, bed. Though they end the same way, these are not the same story. Maybe if I’d been someone else I’d see it differently. But isn’t that the crux of the problem? Wouldn’t we all act differently if we were someone else?
If only she’d been someone else. She gets to the nub of how certain we can be retrospectively.
Finally, the simple scene between Linda and her sorta, kinda boyfriend, him having her draw a tarot card and asking her what she sees, a scene that is a wallop of running and dodging and pursuit:
“I promise this’ll be good.” He scooted closer to me on his knees. Held up one finger. “Give me a second. What does this card make you think?” “That Fool looks like pretty easy prey, if you ask me. His eyes are closed.” “Okay. That’s perfect. What else?” “Does he have, like, a pig on his stick?” “I think that’s a rucksack.” I narrowed my eyes. “Where’d you learn to read tarot again?” He narrowed his eyes back—he was smiling though. “Who was easy prey in your childhood?” “Did I ever tell you I know quite a lot about wolves?” “Ha! The Girl Scout. I know her. The Girl Scout comes out whenever you’re nervous.” “Like, I’m your wolf expert. Ask me anything.” “Who was easy prey, then.”
END OF CHAPTER. Her writing, her structure, her discipline had me by the throat for all 275 pages.
Then there’s the ending. The last two paragraphs changed entirely what I thought had been going on in the novel. I closed the book. I closed my eyes. I opened the book and read the last two paragraphs out loud, slowly.
Yep. This book is brilliant.
You can buy History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund at your local bookstore. If they don’t have it in stock (likely), please ask them to order it rather than ordering it online. You can wait five days. Whatever you do, if you want good books to get published (I just read that 60% of all book sales in the U.S. are in the romance genre which says all too much) please don’t order on Amazon. Here’s why: https://medium.com/@andyhunter777/every-book-lover-should-fear-this-graph-4f16d85bf2b1
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >