HISTORY OF WOLVES. By Emily Fridlund. Atlantic Monthly Press. 275 pages. $25.
Growing up in the northern woods is a lonely experience. Winter is so long, much longer than it should be, that it teaches you to hunker down, to hold your arms tight across your chest, to grit your teeth and squint your eyes until it’s over.
“It was the worst part of winter, a waste of white in every direction, no place for little kids or city people. Beneath a foot of ice, beneath my boots, the walleye drifted. They did not try to swim, or do anything that required effort. They hovered, waiting winter out with driftwood, barely beating their hearts.”
In Emily Fridlund’s debut novel “History of Wolves,” Madeline, who goes by Linda, is a wise and lonely 14-year-old living in an abandoned commune in northern Minnesota with her parents, or “simply the people who stayed around after everyone else went back to college or office jobs in the Twin Cities.” The result of this atypical upbringing is that Linda is wise beyond her years, though her practicality exasperates her mother who wishes Linda would just “cavort and pretend.”
But it’s not in Linda’s nature to pretend to be happy. Not when she’s scraping money together to buy food and walking home from school through the snow and dark woods to a house with no heat. Happiness is pointless, until a young family moves into a house on the lake within view of Linda’s cabin.
Petra Gardner has relocated from the city to the lake house with her 4-year-old son Paul, while her husband Leo, an astronomer, works overseas. Petra is young and naive and enlists Linda as Paul’s babysitter “to teach them about the woods,” and soon Linda is spending all her time at the house on the lake. Immersing herself in the lives of Petra and Paul, she is happy — “I barely recognized the feeling,” she says — until Leo returns.
Dr. Leonard Gardner is a third-generation Christian Scientist who believes “there is no place in the universe for evil, for sickness, for sadness, for death.” His presence is unsettling and alters the dynamic of the house, driving a wedge between the women. Linda watches, resentfully, as Petra becomes passive and deferential around her husband.
The book is divided into two parts: “Science” and “Health,” which is also the title of a book written in 1875 by Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, who argued that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone. Fridlund steers us away from critique of Christian Scientists, letting Leo’s actions speak for themselves.
The timeline is fluid, and Fridlund periodically fast-forwards to Linda’s adult life as a maladjusted dropout struggling to find her way in the world. Plagued with feelings of guilt and loss, Linda replays the events of that summer and the trial that followed. “At the trial they kept asking, when did you know for sure there was something wrong.” Fridlund asks us to consider our role as observers, and within this role, what are the repercussions of our actions or inactions? Who is to blame?
The relationship between Linda and the Gardners is so compelling that a parallel storyline involving a pedophile teacher at Linda’s school is a distraction. Interestingly, this section of the book was originally published as a short story and while it reveals another layer of Linda’s personality, it pulls us away from the heart of the story.
In “History of Wolves,” Fridlund has created a beautifully stark, isolated town on a lake where loneliness hangs like a dark cloud, children live without heat and dogs run wild through the woods; it is a place that God seems to have forgotten. But in all its darkness, it’s home too, and it makes you who you are.
Reviewer Amy Mercer is a freelance writer in Charleston.