History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund

This was a Bookopia (Palampur Book Club) read

Genre : Contemporary Literature

Rating : * * 

Contrary to what the title suggests, this book is not about wolves. Or being lost in the woods. Or living with wolves. The only wolf in this book is a stuffed one who makes an apologetic appearance on maybe two pages in the story. He is not even symbolic of anything particular in this novel. So, why the title ‘history of wolves’? This is the story of Madeline, a 14-year-old teenager filled with all the angst of budding hormones. Does Madeline consider herself a ‘lone wolf’ who is striving to survive in the wilderness of everyday life? This when wolves are renowned for staying in packs and possessing an extremely deep sense of community. This novel maybe considered a sort of history of Madeline but that is about all she shares with the wolves.

Madeline started life as a member of a commune founded by her parents and other like-minded individuals. Her best friend from that time is Tameka who shared a bunk with her since the children were all segregated from the adults in the belief that they must be brought up by the community and not just the two individuals who gave birth to them. When the commune breaks up, Linda is left alone with her parents on a remote stretch of land that is cut-off by the general population by forest and snow. Her parents are still following their instincts about letting children find their own way and let her roam around at will, with no curfews or restrictions except those imposed on her by the lack of money. She is not well-liked in school either and has no friends.

The picture painted is that of a lonely, independent child trying to find someone who she feels will understand her quirks and her moody silences. In pursuit of this goal she focuses on people who are in some way outcasts themselves but in a relatively less obvious way than her. Hence her interest in the newly arrived teacher, Mr Grierson, who is obviously smitten by the prettiest girl in class. Or Lily, the prettiest girl in class who is not very bright and subject to whispers and pointed fingers herself. She spins some elaborate fantasies about how she will approach them and then feels disappointed and disillusioned when they fail to react to her overtures in the way she expects them to.

Into this scenario move Patra and her son Paul, who become Madeline’s nearest neighbours in the cabin across the lake. As Madeline starts spending more and more time with them, she begins to imagine herself a part of their family. It is almost painful to watch how hard she tries to insinuate herself into the framework of that family unit and deny the presence of her own on the other side of the lake.

The narrative style that is the author adopts is one that moves back and forth in time. Unlike other times, when a similar technique has been used by others, the story does not flow as easily from one phase to another. It comes across as rambling thoughts thrown together as one would in a diary while reminiscing about old times. Also, the point that  the author is trying to make is not very clear. While this novel is a testament to the selfishness and utter self-involvement of the teenage mind, there is a lack of depth and sentiment to the whole story. The one tragic incident in the story on which this whole book actually propels is almost lost between the extreme build up and the time-hopping interludes. The character build up is not very strong either. Since the book is from Madeline’s perspective, this lack of in-depth analysis of the other characters around her can also be deemed deliberate but it would have been interesting to know more about the people who flit through the pages alongside her. Her interest in the people whom she pursues, except for Patra and Paul, is never clearly explained. Why she took such an interest in them to begin with, why she tried to keep track of them for years after they had moved out of her life or even what she expected from them in return when they hardly registered her presence in their lives?  Even her sexual preferences are not made clear and one is left wondering whether she actually had a sexual interest in an individual or a spiritual one.

At the end of the book, while one is pretty sure that Madeline is not a very likable character, it is unclear whether the author expected her audience to empathize with her or just listen to her story and move on or take up arms against certain religious practices. Or even whether the author is teaching us more compassion when she discusses the sad fate of a convicted child molester and has her main protagonist absolve him of a crime he did not commit. Is she in some way then asking her audience to look with a better understanding at Leo and Patra and their unfathomable beliefs? And perhaps at the childish folly of Madeline that had such disastrous results?

Having said that, the one point made by a fellow book club member about the book being about the disconnect between what an individual thinks and what he/she actually does struck me as being a fair one. Also, a lot of people felt sympathy for the lonely teenager in the story and felt that her description by the author was true to form.

This is a tragic story, made more so by the atmospheric and emotional isolation of the main protagonist and yet, it fails to invoke any great emotion in the reader. It is too long and too rambling to make it a comfortable or even a worthwhile read. When after reading a 500-page novel one is unable to arrive at the gist of the story then it is simply a lamentable waste of good reading time.

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