History of Wolves: A Novel by Emily Fridlund

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“By their nature, it came to me, children were freaks. They believed impossible things to suit themselves, thought their fantasies were the center of the world. They were the best kind of quacks, if that’s what you wanted- pretenders who didn’t know they were pretending at all.”

In truth, adults can convince themselves of ridiculously impossible things as much as children. In History of Wolves, there is so much self-examination going on in the eyes of one observant teenage girl coming of age.I apologize if my review doesn’t stay on track, but I felt strange for days after reading this story. There isn’t a detail about people that Linda doesn’t witness and her communion with nature reminds me of the worship others feel for God. Once a child of a commune that others abandoned, Linda and her family are the remains of that past seen as ‘those people’ and strange by others. We know she is a misfit, of course she is! Anyone who comes from an unconventional family is going to be dismissed generally by others. With a carefree, hands off sort of parenting, Linda has always looked out for herself in ways other children can only imagine. When the exciting, hip new teacher Mr. Grierson enters her life she wonders what it is about beautiful, damaged Lily that pulls him so. There is something tender and sad about Linda’s obsessiveness over Lily, is there a seed of romantic crushing, is it a simple desire to be someone else by immersing herself in knowledge of her? As she shadows Lily, maybe even tries her  seductive ways on like a coat, you can’t help but remember when you too once were Linda at some point in life. As she hungers after Lily, in a sense, and finds herself desperate for Mr. Grierson’s attention the reader remembers the pain and confusion of youth. Mr. Grierson and the rumors that circle and soon consume everyone are wrapped in a haze of truths tangled in lies. But this isn’t a story just about seduction between teachers and students and it certainly isn’t a warning about child pornographers.

The marrow of the novel is time spent babysitting Paul for Patra, whom Linda watches at first- always watching others as outsiders often do. Patra’s husband Leo is much older and away- yet he is present still in conversations about his work, the brilliance of his beliefs and mind. While caring for the young Paul, Linda becomes a part of the family and finds herself with an unfamiliar feeling- happiness. But even with so much joy, the delight of young Paul, something feels eerie and off, there is something the reader can’t shake and we know the author is leading us off a cliff but when? Where? How? From the start we know Linda is an outsider, one who is equally hungry to fit in as she is repulsed by it in a strange sort of inner tug of war. Her affinity for nature has so much beauty, there is a certain quiet loner quality to those who see everything, who feel attuned to simply being. But even those at home in solitude crave communion with others, and that is so much what was missing before Patra and Paul came along. Linda’s feelings for Paul are similar to that of an older sibling, one who finds their kid brother to be adorable and obnoxious. Linda has bonded with other children in the past, during the times when the commune was still alive but never for long. Family, wherever it existed, seemed to come and go as much as childish whims. She is in awe of Patra, who seems far more educated and worldly than her. Paul is cocooned by the warm, adoring love of his mother- something Linda has never known, her life much more hardscrabble. With the mother and son,she has found a solid surrogate family until Leo comes along.

Leo is both master and God, in a sense. Patra bows to his beliefs and we all know that when one defers to another, it can be fatally tragic. It got me thinking about how all of us, in some twisted form or another defer to someone else. Yes, even the strongest of us – be it religion, lovers, family, friends or jobs… we defer and sometimes don’t even recognize that we are doing it. At the climax I thought, no… oh no! Our beliefs can obliterate everything we love, and we sometimes go into it blindly. What of the bystanders, how much blame is at their feet? Because we have all been bystanders, and we’ve ignored that gnawing in our gut that said ‘something isn’t right here.’ This is beautiful literary fiction that also raised my hackles , and it’s a strange combination to feel something sinking in your belly while your falling for the characters. The relationship between Paul and Linda is sweet,through caring for him she gets to be a kid bonding with a pesky little brother, shadowing a life she never got to lead in the commune where there wasn’t a true set of parents. This novel is strangely hypnotic, I began to understand Linda got sucked into everything that occurs with Paul, Patra and Leo. At the end, I was angry and conflicted- much as Linda will be.

What a strange story that asks a lot of us all. It made me think about beliefs the whole world over and how fatal and beautiful the things we stand and worship are. We close our eyes because of our beliefs as much as we embrace things. It’s a struggle between right and wrong, isn’t it. Not believing in anything doesn’t free us either. It really is human to err, that’s what I take. We screw things up even when we feel what we’re doing is right. Darn this book has my head sort of spinning. It’s certainly different. If you want something to talk about, to feel disturbed and hopeful both- this is for you. I loved it.

Publication Date: January 3, 2017

Grove Atlantic

Atlantic Monthly Press

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