Title: History of Wolves
Author: Emily Fridlund
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Grove Atlantic, January 3rd 2017
Synopsis: Linda has an idiosyncratic home life: her parents live in abandoned commune cabins in northern Minnesota and are hanging on to the last vestiges of a faded counter-culture world. The kids at school call her ‘Freak’, or ‘Commie’. She is an outsider in all things. Her understanding of the world comes from her observations at school, where her teacher is accused of possessing child pornography, and from watching the seemingly ordinary life of a family she babysits for. Yet while the accusation against the teacher is perhaps more innocent than it seemed at first, the ordinary family turns out to be more complicated. As Linda insinuates her way into the family’s orbit, she realises they are hiding something. If she tells the truth, she will lose the normal family life she is beginning to enjoy with them; but if she doesn’t, their son may die.
History of Wolves is an exquisitely nuanced novel that follows a young woman as she recalls her life when she was fourteen. Linda grew up with her parents (though she’s not sure if they are, in fact, her parents) in an abandoned commune cabin in northern Minnesota. Left to her own devices, we learn that Linda rarely connects with anything or anyone except the nature around her. Dejected, she struggles to connect to her world and forms strong bonds with certain events that shape her life. During her second year in high school, Patra and four-year-old Paul Gardner move into a house across the lake from her. Husband/father Leo is working elsewhere, and the small family finds themselves isolated in the wilderness. Fueled by her interest for the woman and child she sees living across the lake, Linda ends up babysitting Paul. As each day goes by, she spends more time with this family, and slowly learns that they are hiding something from themselves.
“Winter collapsed on us that year. It knelt down, exhausted, and stayed. In the middle of December so much snow fell that the gym roof buckled, and school was cancelled for a week.”
Emily Fridlund has created a complex set of characters that all feel slightly detached from their present, and each other. Linda’s character was especially troublesome. She is floundering, trying to keep herself afloat while traversing the trials of a lonely teen-hood. The desolated setting aids in this sense of loneliness. Turning the pages, you can feel the cold of the lake and see the details of the forest as Linda experiences them. The shifting timeline of the story took me by surprise, but I came to appreciate the way the story builds—slowly, adding elements to the plot with care. We see how everything in Linda’s life has shaped who she’s become in adulthood. We come to realize how she got to be a girl so far from home, from herself.
The writing is lovely, the story disturbing, strange and a bit haunting. I was captivated by the particularity of this novel and Linda’s fresh voice; she keeps our mind turning until the very end.