In Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves there are predators who are sometimes preyed upon. And there are prey who sometimes become predators. This is no surprise because as the narrator, Madeline, who at school was called “Linda, or Commie, or Freak,” explains in her report (called History of Wolves) “an alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason.” This concept certainly applies to Madeline, though her reasons for being a predator (when she is one) are not clear. The recklessness of a child trying to prey on an adult is.
Madeline is 37 years old when she tells her story, and the narrative consists of flashbacks of when she was 4, 15, and 26 – so 11 is an important number here. Why? No idea. But the internet says (the following is to be read with an authoritative British accent): when the number 11 appears frequently in your life, there is a need to find or restore balance.
When Madeline was 15 years old (the pivotal year in this story), a new history teacher, Mr. Grierson, mysteriously arrived from California. Why would a man suddenly leave a prestigious California high school to teach in northern Minnesota? Could he be a child molester – the worst kind of predator? That seems unlikely. Does he just prefer life in the bleakest part of Minnesota, where winter is 11 months every year? That sounds right.
Despite her suspicions about Mr. Grierson, Madeline regularly puts herself into situations where she’s alone with him – as if she is trying to tempt or entrap him. The question of who’s watching you, while you are watching someone else, emerges as a theme. Madeline is watching Mr. Grierson, who is watching Lily ( another young girl at the high school). Who is Lily watching? Mr. Grierson may want to pay attention to that. So someone is always watching you – whether you know it or not. That’s not comforting, but no one cares about your comfort. In fact, reading this story is like walking with a splinter in your heel. Yet, it is so well told, you must read on.
All of this is introductory, designed to make the reader uneasy – off balance, if you will. The story really takes off when a young couple with a small child move into a cabin near Madeline’s home, and she becomes the boy’s babysitter. Paul is 4; Madeline is 15; Patra (the boy’s mom) is 26; and Leo (the boy’s dad) is 37. Hey, 11 snuck in here again. Does that mean something? Probably not. Don’t worry about it.
Early on, the reader learns Paul will not live to see 5. The reader also learns Leo and Patra started dating when she was 19 and in college. Leo was her teacher. Patra insists, however, that’s not creepy because she pursued him. Believe what you will, but there’s that predator question again.
Paul is clearly ill. However, Leo is a Christian Scientist so medicine and doctors are forbidden. Patra doesn’t know what to do. She wants to believe Leo knows best. She wants to have faith. Is she being preyed upon? Why won’t anyone answer these freaking questions? Ultimately, Paul dies (as we know he will) from a treatable condition. Leo and Patra are put on trial, and Madeline is the key witness.
This a story about an adult struggling to find balance. Attempting to understand and recover from the damage of two traumatic events when she was 15 years old. The questions to be resolved are difficult. “What’s the difference between what you want to believe and what you do believe?” And “[w]hat’s the difference between what you think and what you end up doing?” But the answers to tough questions don’t come easy. They never do.
Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans