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27 August 2017

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.

By India Bourke

“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”.

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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

This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia