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History of Wolves is a chilling meditation on the challenges of bearing witness

Emily Fridlund's Man Booker-longlisted novel is full of arresting detail.

“The wolf exerts a powerful influence on the human imagination. It takes your stare and turns it back on you,” wrote Barry Lopez in 1978. His celebrated natural history Of Wolves and Men traced the way that human history and myth have fuelled the persecution of these creatures and often revealed more about our own prejudices than about their reality. “[The wolf] did not have to be what I imagined he was,” Lopez wrote in the final lines.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund has taken these ideas and run with them – straight onto the Man Booker Prize longlist. But in this story, it is human predators, not wolves, who are responsible for a child’s unnecessary death.

The coming-of-age tale is set in rural Minnesota and narrated in retrospect, focusing largely on the narrator’s teenage self. Madeline Furston – also known as Linda, Mattie and “freak” – is overlooked at home and looked down on at school. She is not even sure if her parents are her blood relatives, or just the people who were left behind when the other members of their back-to-the-land commune gave up and moved on. “They were more like step-siblings than parents,” we are told.

Hers is a hard and cold childhood, but it allows the young Linda to niggle at the cracks in accepted wisdoms about how power and hierarchy should work. In the opening scenes, her decision to give a presentation on wolves in a local history competition leaves the judges bemused. “What do wolves have to do with human history?” one of them asks. “Wolves have nothing at all to do with humans, actually,” is her defiant response. “If they can help it, they avoid them.”

Linda fills her presentation with diagrams of pups, recordings of howls and a quotation from Barry Lopez’s celebrated book. “An alpha animal may be alpha but only at certain times for a specific reason,” she reads aloud, repeating the writer’s “sweet” and “forbidden” line slowly “like it was an amendment to the constitution”.

The performance wins Linda the “Originality Prize”. Yet, from this point on, metaphorical wolves lurk everywhere in the novel, from a teacher with a paedophilic past to the lingering influence of religious obsession. Will the 14-year-old Linda be able to sniff out these threats? And will she intervene when a child’s life is in danger? These questions propel the story forward, slowly at first, and then in a gripping tumble.

The result is a chilling meditation on the challenges of bearing witness, and a novel full of arresting detail: from the yellow canines of Linda’s predatory teacher to a vision of rural poverty as “a pile of army-issue sleeping bags that smelled of mildew and smoke”.

Most beautifully depicted of all are the Minnesotan woods and lakes that surround Linda’s home. It is here that she brings the young Paul, her babysitting charge, to learn about eating grasshoppers, fighting off bears and gathering dew in his jacket to survive. Sometimes funny and often endearing, these scenes are also far from innocent. Instead, these woods are a place where sap seeps out like “blisters in the heat”, and night-time dives into the “mucousy” lake lead Linda to stirrings of sexual attraction and scandal. “I know better than to be wistful,” the adult Linda reflects. “It was never magical to me: I was never so young, nor so proprietary, as to see it like that.”

Details also conspire to blind as much as they reveal, however. Paul’s mother Patra goes on trial with her husband for his manslaughter. It is ultimately what Linda chooses not to say in court that counts.

“Hadn’t she warmed his apple juice in the microwave once, because he said it was too cold, it hurt his teeth?” she thinks. “He was so entirely and evidently cherished: that’s the truth. I could have said all that when I had my chance. I wanted to – I planned on it – but didn’t.”

Weighing up what is or isn’t done, said and felt by various characters provides the plot with its ethical force. This culminates in a striking contrast between the way the courts decide to treat Paul’s abusive but religious parents on the one hand, and the verdict handed out to the paedophilic Mr Grierson on the other.

It’s an approach that implicates the reader too: how will we judge Linda for her own failure to see what was really going on at the time? Have we fully understood the emotional neglect she also endured?

In revisiting the themes of Lopez’s text, Fridlund has thus created one of the most intelligent and poetic novels of the year. She has taken her readers’ stare and turned it back on themselves. And while some may find the pace too slow, or the jumps between the narrator’s life stages too jarring, the connections between her storylines are, like Linda’s essay, undeniably original. 

History of Wolves
Emily Fridlund
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 279pp, £12.99

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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What Happened reveals Hillary Clinton as a smart thinker – unlike the man who beat her

Those asking why she blames everyone but herself for Donald Trump clearly haven't read the book.

Hillary Clinton is smug, entitled, dislikeable, hawkish, boring. She was unable to beat a terrible Republican presidential candidate. Why doesn’t she just shut up and sod off? Bernie would have won, you know. Sexism? There’s no sexism in opposing someone who left Libya a mess and voted for the Iraq War. Also, she had slaves.

This is a small sample of the reactions I’ve had since tweeting that I was reading Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. This is one of those books that comes enveloped in a raincloud of received opinion. We knew the right hated Clinton – they’ve spent three decades furious that she wanted to keep her maiden name and trying to implicate her in a murder, without ever quite deciding which of those two crimes was worse. But the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders provoked a wave of backlash from the left, too. You now find people who would happily go to sleep in a nest made out of copies of Manufacturing Consent mouthing hoary Fox News talking points against her.

One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself?

Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.

Ultimately, though, she argues that it was a “campaign that had both great strengths and real weaknesses – just like every campaign in history”. This appears to be what has infuriated people, and it’s hard not to detect a tinge of sexist ageism (bore off, grandma, your time has passed). Those who demand only grovelling from the book clearly don’t care about finding lessons for future candidates: if the problem was Hillary and Hillary alone, that’s solved. She’s not running in 2020.

Clinton marshals a respectable battalion of defences. Historically, it is very unusual for an American political party to win three elections in a row. The Democrats (like Labour in Britain) have longstanding problems with white working-class voters outside the big cities. Facebook was flooded with fake news, such as the story that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And besides, Clinton did win three million more votes than her Republican rival.

Added to which, it is now hard to deny that Russia interfered heavily in the US election, with Trump’s approval – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July 2016 – and perhaps even with the active collusion of his campaign. The next Democratic candidate will have to reckon with all this.

The election outcome would have been different if just 40,000 voters in three key swing states had flipped, so there are dozens of potential culprits for Clinton’s loss. But perhaps one of the reasons that many in the US media have been so hostile to the book is that it paints them as such villains. Even now, it is common to hear that Clinton “didn’t have an economic message”, when a better criticism is that no one got to hear it.

In their mission not to be accused of “elite bias”, the media desperately hunted for bad things to say about Clinton, when none of her offences came close to the gravity of a totally unqualified, unstable man with no government experience going on a year-long bender of saying mad shit and boasting about sexual assault. In both the primary against Sanders and the general election, she was treated as the obvious next president, and held to a different standard. (Incidentally, there is surprisingly little criticism of Sanders in here; she credits him with helping to write her policy platform.)

The book is at its best when it reflects on gender, a subject which has interested Clinton for decades. She calculates that she spent 600 hours during the campaign having her hair and make-up done, as “the few times I’ve gone out in public without make-up, it’s made the news”. She writes about the women she met who were excited to vote for a female president for the first time. She mentions the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where 3.8 million people cheered on her candidacy. (Tellingly, the group was invite-only.)

Yet Clinton was never allowed to be a trailblazer in the way that Barack Obama was. That must be attributed to the belief, common on the left and right, that whiteness and wealth cancel out any discrimination that a woman might otherwise suffer: pure sexism doesn’t exist.

The narrative of the US election is that Clinton was deeply unpopular, and while that’s true, so was Trump. But where were the interviews with the 94 per cent of African-American women who voted for her, compared with the tales of white rage in Appalachia? “The press coverage and political analysis since the election has taken as a given that ‘real America’ is full of middle-aged white men who wear hard hats and work on assembly lines – or did until Obama ruined everything,” she writes.

Clinton faces the uncomfortable fact that whites who feel a sense of “loss” are more attracted by Trump’s message than Americans with objectively worse material conditions who feel life might get better. That is an opportunity for the left, and a challenge: many of those Trump voters aren’t opposed to benefits per se, just the idea they might go to the undeserving. Universal healthcare will be a hard sell if it is deemed to be exploited by, say, undocumented immigrants.

Yes, What Happened is occasionally ridiculous. There’s a section on “alternate nostril breathing” as a relaxation technique that a kinder editor would have cut. The frequent references to her Methodism will seem strange to a British audience. The inspirational stories of the people she meets on the campaign trail can feel a little schmaltzy. But it reveals its author as a prodigious reader, a smart thinker and a crafter of entire sentences. Unlike the man who beat her. 

What Happened
Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 494pp, £20

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left