Book review

This moving Booker long-listed novel tells a stark story of the mysterious effects of human bondage

Emily Fridlund’s ‘History of Wolves’ explores the lingering effects of even tenuous relationships.

Wolves live in packs, away from humans. When Mattie, on the urging of her middle school history teacher, presents their history as part of an inter-school History Odyssey tournament, it leaves the audience – particularly some in the jury – bemused.

“But what do wolves have to do with human history?” a judge asks.

“They have nothing to do with humans. If at all they avoid them...” This is Mattie’s somewhat disdainful, fierce answer.

Yet it wins Mattie the prize for “Originality”.

Then there’s the death of a quirky history teacher, Mr Adler, who is succeeded by Mr Grierson, totally unlike his predecessor, who comes to exercise a mysterious draw for Mattie. All this appears in the first chapter of Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. This first chapter won Fridlund the McGinnis Ritchie award for fiction when it was published as a standalone short story with the title that the novel longlisted for the Man Booker Prize now bears.

Wintry landscapes

It’s a chapter that sets the tone and the theme of the novel. It’s also where the distinctive presence of the novel’s narrator, Linda (Mattie) is first apparent. More vitally, Minnesota’s far north, the fictitious town of Loose River with its forests of aspen and birch and lakes that freeze over every winter – a season that sets in unfailingly cold and hard and lasts well into spring – plays a crucial part in the novel.

The isolation induced by weather and location is made even more so by Mattie’s memory of growing up in an unusual, highly regimented commune where kindness often seems cruelty. For instance, her mother’s experimentations with religion, and the penance and mortification that followed every experimentation seemingly gone wrong.

In fact, Mattie isn’t even sure if her parents are really her own. They could be step-siblings. There is her father with his absentmindedness, and the kindness he is afraid to show, and her mother who has a predilection for making up unusual, even sarcastic nicknames for Mattie, such as CEO, Professor and, later, the Teenager.

What she is called really doesn’t matter to Mattie, as she realises, a name is the thing that could least belong to anyone. With Patra and her young son, Mattie assumes the name of Linda. Later, as events unfold, readers follow her immersion in the life of a child and his death, which we learn of in the very second para of the novel. Mattie is first a governess, very like Jane in Charlotte Bronte’s novel (as stressed by Patra) and then, during the trial in the book’s second half, only a babysitter.

Loss in isolation

Mattie appears to learn of loss early. Among those she names first are her older friend Tameko in the commune, who convinces her in their early childhood games that they can indeed have the same thoughts. Then there is Mr Adler, whose classes in Russian history – not the communists but the czars – Mattie found fascinating. In that first chapter, Mr Adler slumps in class as snow falls outside in early November. It is a hard winter, when as Fridlund writes: “Winter collapsed on us that year. It knelt down, exhausted and stayed.”

When the paramedics take Mr Adler away, they ask about the Doors song that is playing and one of them hands out orange juice in a Dixie cup – small details that make apparent the starkness of the winter landscape, and the unlikely reactions that matters of great import can evoke in people. This aspect appears in various ways all through the novel. It is in another long winter Mattie, now Linda, befriends a family – a young mother and her four-year-old son, Paul – who come to live in their summer cabin, across the frozen Gone Lake that separates Mattie’s home from theirs.

The isolation and the cold winter bring the three of them closer together, with Linda becoming an observer and participant in the rituals of affection that bind mother and son. Patra could almost be a teenager herself, while Mattie is in turn precocious, older than her years, holding secrets. In conventional literary terms, Mattie could be an unreliable narrator. But her observations, her close affinity with the natural world around her – not so much the world of the commune that she is inextricably part of – are what make this novel. It is this friendship, the relationship she has with Paul, the events that unfold from the winter of one year to the summer of the next, that will haunt Mattie the rest of her life.

The juxtaposition of these two worlds – reflected in the novel’s two sections, “Science” and “Health” – give this novel its strange otherworldly quality, quite like Mattie herself. The primitive and rustic quality of life that she leads turn her into a “freak”, a “commie”, for her classmates. Except for the beautiful Lily Holburn, who lives alone with her father in a reservation (native American settlement) and who, as only Mattie realises with some jealousy, catches Mr Grierson’s eye. Mattie has a head for figures and a love for words. She notices, for example, how the number 11 connects the four of them: Paul, his parents, Patra and Leo and herself.

Of human bondage

These connections are what enable Mattie to see things otherwise missed. Her truths that she is entirely convinced about – such as about Mr Grierson’s innocence, that Lily wasn’t quite as stupid as others assumed, and that there was something odd about Leo – drive her life, her decisions, and become the novel’s truths. Her interpretations are also what enable Mattie to believe in her version of the truth, and these bigger truths make her taciturn about lesser, yet more urgent, ones.

In spring, as fishermen and other vacationers come in for the walleye, Patra and Paul remain enclosed in their quiet isolation. Despite her hopes about her own life and Paul’s too, Patra remains in thrall of her husband, the much older Leo, with his esoteric cultish beliefs. The story follows in parallel the one that between Mr Grierson and Lily, and both will have an impact on Linda’s later life. She cannot shake either off, whether it is her virtual trail of Mr Grierson – mapping his life from California to Minnesota and then to Florida – or how the trial of Leo and Patra, where Mattie appears as a crucial witness, influences her.

At the trial, Patra’s affectedness and poise – mistaken for snobbishness – turn the state attorney, even the judge, against her. And Mattie/Linda, ready to offer empathy, freezes when Patra refuses to be disloyal to Leo. The unspoken, tenuous bonds of understanding and empathy, hinting at an (otherworldly, even mystical) affection Mattie is afraid to express tie her to both Lily and then to Patra. For all of Mattie’s efforts to reach out to Lily and Patra to tell them that she understands their actions, this is a doomed exercise, Fridlund tries to tell us.

Fridlund has written a novel of how lives are shaped by the landscapes of one’s early habitations. She writes movingly of the unfathomable, even mysterious, effects that relationships can have and how the ties that we subconsciously assent to could become acts of bondage, holding us in lifelong thrall no matter all our attempts to shake them off.

History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund, Atlantic Monthly Press.

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