One of the problems with coming-of-age novels is their tendency to all come out the same. The reader knows all of the characters and tropes before starting the story, and you spend each book waiting for the moment of epiphany. However, though Emily Fridlund’s debut novel History of Wolves tells the story of a teenager growing up, it has more in common with a Greek tragedy than the standard coming-of-age novel.
Death is just the false belief that anything could ever end. There’s no going anywhere for any of us, not in reality. (p. 249)
Madeleine was raised on the commune her parents set up, until it collapsed into anger and discord. At school, everyone calls her ‘Linda’, or ‘Commie’, or ‘Freak’. Resenting her parents and alienated at school, her isolation means the novel is narrated from a position almost outside the real world looking in, watching the inexplicable actions of people she cannot understand. In the eighth grade she does a history project on wolves, and when she is asked what this has to do with human history, she responds: ‘Wolves have nothing at all to do with humans, actually. If they can help it, they avoid them’ (p.14). Linda is more at home in the desolately beautiful landscape of rural Minnesota walking the dogs in the woods or canoeing on the lake.
Although Linda never gets to be a child in the ordinary sense, defying once again the classification of ‘coming-of-age novel’, the narrative does revolve around one: Paul, the son of Patra and the largely absent Leo. They live across the lake and Linda begins to babysit for them. But Paul isn’t allowed to come of age either, since two pages in, it becomes clear that he is going to die. Linda seems to approach Patra and Paul as a surrogate family, creating a jealous rivalry between her and Leo over Patra, yet all along, a shadow hangs over this desire for belonging. Ultimately, this is a cynical story about the awful things people are capable of doing to those who are close to them. Fridlund is a master of suspense, and as you read, anticipation gradually gives way to horror.
Towards the end of the novel, Linda attends a Christian Scientist meeting where she is told: “Death is just the false belief that anything could ever end. There’s no going anywhere for any of us, not in reality.” This sense of tragic inevitability is part of what makes History of Wolves such a compelling debut, well-deserving of its place on the Man Booker Prize Longlist 2017.
Image: Katie Butler