History of Wolves: Booker Prize shortlist meet Minnesota winter; or, what to read on your holiday break

There’s a lot going on in Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, but at its heart the novel explores culpability and guilt. The first page of the novel explains that our protagonist, Linda, held and hugged a boy, Paul, who died. What follows is how Paul died, and more significantly, why he died (as his death, we learn, was far from inevitable). 

The title of the novel comes from a school project Linda does on a history of wolves, but also (of course) signals the way the novel functions as a history of Linda, a ‘lone wolf’ among her peers and family. Raised by on a former commune by her former commune (maybe) parents, Linda spends the vast majority of her time on her own, exploring the woods, caring for herself and unsupervised by adults. When Linda takes on babysitting for Paul, the four year old son of the family across the lake, we witness as she negotiates a role for herself within that family as both peer, daughter and, in some strange way, admirer-lover-something.

I say there’s a lot going on because this feels like a novel that has seen a workshop (or two). There are odd inclusions of very particular details that read as though they are attempting to ‘show rather than tell,’ but are trying to be so unique and creative that in the ‘showing,’ left this reader a little confused about what they were meant to be ‘telling.’ There’s a parallel narrative, for instance, about Linda’s school teacher who is found guilty of possession of child pornography, and who may or may not, have impregnated one of Linda’s classmates, Lily. Throughout the narrative focused on Paul, are interspersed paragraphs about Linda’s reaction to the teacher’s firing, her continued contact with him and her feelings about his guilt or innocence. Certainly there are parallels with the questions of culpability and responsibility at the core of the novel, and resonances with the way Linda negotiates her feelings of agency – and the abundant lack of reliable adult supervision – but this parallel narrative felt forced to me, like a metaphor was being thrust on something that didn’t necessarily need or warrant it.

It’s an odd complaint – to find a book too self-consciously literary – and it’s certainly a minor one. The novel is absolutely worth seeking out, and would make particularly good fodder for a book club discussion. I finished reading it a couple of days ago and still find myself thinking about the characters, and the unfolding of what happened to Paul. Headed into the holiday season I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one as a gift, but it definitely has a creepy, wintery tone about it that would make for a good read curled up by any kind of fire.

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Booker Prize, Fiction, Prize Winner

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