Click here to read reviewer Angela Woltman's take on History of Wolves.
Although Linda, the narrator of Emily Fridlund’s novel, is now an adult, she has never forgotten the summer she spent with the family who lived across the
water from her ramshackle cabin at Loose River, a cabin that she shares with her parents. Linda has never really felt comfortable in her own life, that is until she met her neighbors: Patra and Leo, an accomplished professional couple who, as the novel opens, have asked Linda to babysit their four-year-old son, Paul, a fussy and fragile boy who is sometimes whooping and at other times manic. Linda has a strange, disconnected relationship with her father and often chafes at this man who created Loose River’s first commune. She’s also disengaged from her mother, who has traded whatever hippie fanaticism she once held for a grudging belief in a Christian God.
We don’t quite know why Linda is participating in a criminal trial, only that something in her life has gone terribly wrong. Fridlund tunnels her narrator back in time to when she was in high school and a keen observer of her beautiful, darkhaired classmate, Lily Holburn. Linda is shocked when Lily becomes an outcast, abandoned by her friends after she
is accused of being complicit in the latest scandal: “it wasn’t that I intend to defend her we’d never been friends we’d never been alone in a room together.” Lily’s name has somehow “gotten yoked” with Adam Grierson, the handsome new eighth-grade English teacher. Linda remembers Grierson as black-bearded and exotic, tassel-shouldered with gold loop earring and a brilliant white shirt with pearly buttons.
A keen observer the world around her, Linda at first indulges Grierson. She wants him to know that she sees how he looked at Lily Holburn and that she comprehends that look better than Lily did.
Though she finds his phone jokes creepy and his earring sad, she tells him that she “understands him.” This isn’t an attraction of a sexual nature, more “like grooming, or like a dog.”
She feels as though she’s perceived some deed in Mr. Grierson’s nature. Soon enough
she (and everyone else in Loose River) learns of Grierson’s scandal: at his previous school, he
was accused of pedophilia and sex crimes after the authorities discovered a
stack of pornographic pictures under the bathroom cabinet in his San Francisco apartment.
While Linda’s early encounter with Grierson shapes her reality, what really besets her is her evolving relationship with Paul and Padra and, later,
Leo. After being welcomed into their daily existence with warmth and humor,
Linda initially sees her new family as innocents who actually need guidance and
help, perhaps even someone to teach them about the woods. At first, Padra and Leo are excruciatingly kind to their loyal babysitter.
On a trip to Duluth to look at the tall ships, Linda begins to see something darker, a feeling of desolation in the marriage that begins to ricochet through her time with them. From this husband and wife to Lily, “the frightened, beautiful bully,” Linda finds herself at a critical standoff, propelled into an uncertain future by her intense need to find someone to be lover, father, and savior.
Fridlund’s prose is always beautiful as she describes the harsh Minnesota winters and the sunny summer woods,
“fizzed and fermented” while “everything else shimmers and throws lights.” The
story is dark and bleak, written in a language that reflects the growing angst
of Linda’s sexual and emotional maturing as well as her obsessions with the past
and her regrets that she didn’t do more to help Paul. While she was distracted,
things shifted; what was once beautiful and wild and precarious soon becomes something much tougher. Only at the end of the novel,
as events come full circle, does Linda finds a measure of peace by turning away from the big city and back to the harsh winter landscapes of Loose River.
Part thriller and part astute treatise on the folly of youth, the loss of innocence and our inability to fulfill the fervent wish to escape the mistakes we make and live a better life, History of Wolves
tracks how one girl endures love, loss, heartbreak, heartache, and change. While Leo and Padra’s Christian Science beliefs are obviously integral to the story, they are of lesser importance than the author’s major theme: the difference between what you want to believe and what you do, and the transformation between what you think and what you end up doing.
I liked the novel, even when I thought that Linda was not an interesting enough character to carry the novel by herself. Far more compelling were Lily and Grierson, who could have had the book all to their own. Still, Linda’s voice echoes with such raw sentiment that it’s impossible not to get caught up in her journey as well as her hopes and dreams and insecurities.