BOOK REVIEW: History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
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 kinds of quacks, if that’s what you wanted – pretenders who didn’t know they were pretending at all.
Madeline “Linda” Furston grew up in an ex-commune beside a lake in the backwoods of northern Minnesota.
She doesn’t have any friends, thanks to the whole “ex-commune” thing, and is mostly left to her own devices by her parents.
“It’s important.” She was smiling knowingly now.
I had a flutter in the back of my throat. A warning. “What is?”
“Having a little adventure.”
“Mom.” I didn’t like how she put that. Like she knew what I was up to when she didn’t, and wouldn’t ask. Like I’d run off to the casino, get high, go off the rails on her four fucking dollars. Like she wanted me to.
She’s lonely, and observant, and she sees things that other people don’t. In her search to figure out who she is and where she fits in, she witnesses the fall-out after a teacher, and owner of child pornography, is outed, and the girl who spent time with him is shunned.
I was doing poorly in school, as always, and as the hockey players dreamed us backward towards December, and the debate kids memorized the reciprocal identities, I watched Lily Holburn get abandoned – one by one – by her friends. She’d always been Number Two in a group of four, but since the start of winter she’d become Number Five.
This girl, with whom Linda feels a kind of kinship that exists outside of words, a kinship that doesn’t extend to actually getting to know each other, is the closest she’s come to having a friend since the commune dissolved and her best friend Tameka moved away.
We might have been merely standing next to each other on the curb, waiting for the traffic to pass to go our separate directions. We might have been carefully ignoring each other: me with my cigarette, she with an open can of Coke, which she lifted delicately from her jacket pocket. Still, for the moment, I felt very close to her, and it seemed unnecessary to say anything else.
She’s never had much experience with younger kids, but through a fortuitous meeting, she lands a job looking after Paul, the little boy from the house across the lake.
Paul was fussy and fragile, then whooping and manic. I got used to his moods. Though he was always getting mistaken for someone older, he was four the spring I knew him. He had droopy eyelids, big red hands. He had four-going-on-five-year-old plans: visit Mars, get shoes with ties. He was building a city out of stones and weeds on his deck.
When Paul was excited, he ran with big moon-landing steps. He always looked as if he were concentrating very hard, saying to himself run, run, and each time the word went through his head he’d take a slightly more determined leap into the air. When I told him to run faster, he’d just run higher, and his pace would slow way down. He’d do all this useless work, hiking up his knees, pumping his fists.
Every day she grows closer to Paul and his mother, Patra, and an all-encompassing friendship/obsession forms. But Linda notices a couple of strange things, some signs that Paul may not be your normal little kid, that everything may not be as rosy as it seems. But then who is she to judge?
I had no idea what Paul was up to and, for the moment, I didn’t really care. So we were weirdos. So Paul and I weren’t headed for a long afternoon of Sesame Street in a basement somewhere or an eventual brain injury from a puck to the head, so we weren’t headed for whatever crushing mediocrity this Karen and her boyfriend and her baby had planned. So what.
“Good grief, Linda. I saw you coming across the lake, I watched you and I thought – I had this thought – she’s come to rescue us, that girl in her boat. Isn’t it weird the things you think in the dark? Isn’t it funny how the mind goes flap-flap-flap, so you don’t know if you’re sleeping or not, and you think: That girl, that crazy girl in her canoe has come to row us all away somewhere.”
And when Paul’s father, Leo, comes come, the whole dynamic shifts and everything becomes a little less comfortable, a little more strained.
He had a way of watching me very closely, and not seeming to watch me at all. He was a teacher, of course, probably a good one. He was one of those teachers who set up hidden traps. Like all teachers, he wanted me caught, but he wanted to lead me there first; he wanted me to go on my own accord; he wanted me to feel like I’d made the discovery myself, that I hadn’t been lured in.
The reader knows, right from the first page, that Paul dies.
We haven’t yet met him of course, not properly, but we will spend the rest of the book getting to know this cute, imaginative, loving but picky and temperamental four-year-old in between glimpses of the court case following his death; Linda’s school life; and Linda’s life between then and where she writes from now, at 37 years old.
Linda is not the easiest character to like, but on some level she will likely appeal to any of us who have gone through periods of loneliness, any of us whoever felt like they didn’t belong, and especially anyone who suffers from compulsions.
His squeamishness goaded me somehow, made me a little angry. I wanted him to take the duckling and do something heartless and boyish, so I’d have to remind him to be kind. I don’t know. I wanted to be the one to stop him when he discovered the fragile contraption of bones beneath that halo of down. I wanted to intervene on behalf of animals. It irritated me that he was so careful and afraid. We stood and watched as the duckling waddled off to its mother, and the troop reconvened in a huddle under a pine.
For a strange instant, I found myself longing to lift a rock and throw it at them. I wanted to show Paul something, maybe, make him scared of the right things.
The style of the story itself – hopping from when Linda was fourteen, to her twenties, to fifteen, to her thirties and back again – can take a while to get a handle on, and it wasn’t until about 40% in that the jumps stopped being so jarring for this reader. Being something of a literary novel, there is also not a whole lot of plot, but rather a seemingly random series of events that compound to give us the Linda who is telling this story, and the book doesn’t have any real kind of conclusion.
But somehow these elements – not entirely likable yet somewhat relateable main character, story without a whole lot of plot, related to us in fits and starts, no real conclusion – written with an honest, incredibly human voice come together to deliver a read as compulsive as its main character.
In turns sweet, discomforting, funny, and foreboding, and with so many elements involved, this is a hard book to categorise, but it will undoubtedly stick with the reader, and you’re bound to wonder what Linda did beyond the last page.
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