History of Wolves is undeniable as a literary achievement, but it tantalizes by populating its own edges with people and material that are more interesting than what it offers up.
History of Wolves is high-craft literary fiction that brings a fictional northern Minnesota community to life through the first-person narration of Linda. She’s a teenager for most of the book’s action, but the story is set in multiple different years simultaneously and weaves a tale out of time via stream of consciousness. Author Emily Fridlund earned a spot on the Man Booker Prize shortlist for this novel and the book won several year-end accolades for 2017; while its undeniably excellent, the novel can be alienating for the reader. Fridlund’s setting—the book’s broader milieu—is so rich and textured that History of Wolves disappoints; surely, this is not the best or most consequential story to be told from this world.
The narrative center of History of Wolves involves Linda becoming enmeshed in the daily lives of a new family that has moved into her isolated lakes-and-woods rural community, called Loose River, in the late ‘90s. The Gardners—consisting of Patra, her husband Leo and their toddler-aged son Paul—have built a beautiful lake house with floor-to-ceiling windows, a massive wooden deck and all the sleek refinements that were up to that point foreign to Loose River, particularly to Linda, who lives just across the small lake from their abode in a rundown shack left behind by the dissolution of a Reagan-era commune. Linda’s teenage curiosity and general ragamuffin condition delivers her to the Gardners’ home, where she befriends Patra and becomes a “governess” for Paul for a few hours a day. Leo is an astrophysicist away to Hawaii to conduct research, but he eventually returns to stir the action forward.
This is not the only story in History of Wolves. The book also traces Linda’s tumultuous eighth-grade experiences, including a teacher dying and being replaced by an out-of-towner who would summarily get arrested for child pornography, as well as other parts of Linda’s life. But her relationship with the Gardners, as is made clear very early in the book, culminated in a dramatic police investigation; it is the suspenseful mystery dictating the flow of the plot and what keeps the reader engaged. The book’s climax is the resolution of the Linda-Gardner plotline, and while not exactly disappointing, the ultimate culmination is underwhelming. Was that really what the mystery was all about?
Of course, the book is not just about what happened in that one strange year while Linda was in high school. History of Wolves is just as much about Linda herself and the experiences that formed her. Growing up more or less without parental guidance in the commune and its aftermath, surrounded by pine forests and walleye-filled lakes, in an isolated town with few connections to the broader world, Linda had a childhood that is a relic of the ‘90s. In the internet-era, such seclusion and closed-off-ness are no longer possible. In fact, as Linda narrates it, Loose River is now subdivided and gentrified, a weekends-and-summer suburb for the well-to-do of the Twin Cities. There is a nostalgia and a sense of social dislocation oozing from the pages that are as much a part of the story as the Gardner scandal.
But why choose Linda and why focus on the Gardners at all? Loose River is beautifully rendered here and most of the characters seem more interesting than the protagonist of the book. Most of the stories tucked away and hidden from plain sight in the town—and if Faulkner has taught the reading public anything, it is that there is an infinite amount of salacious tales stowed away in dusky corners all over the US landscape—are surely more important and more interesting than the one told here. Linda is a frustratingly disengaged and self-destructive character, Patra is a cipher with a zombie’s lack of personality, Leo is the asshole entitled white man behind every big wooden desk and most of the subsidiary characters are brighter and more promising. The Gardner scandal is doubtfully so scandalous as what happens at the fishing camps, the Forest Service station, the casino or the Ojibwe reservation, not to mention the events of the past, including the timber boom and the founding of the commune.
In sum, History of Wolves is undeniable as a literary achievement, but it teases the reader, tantalizes by populating its own edges with people and material that looks even better and more interesting than what it offers up. Fridlund is obviously a talent to follow forward and hopefully she decides to bring more of Loose River’s stories to the page. It is a milieu that deserves more than 300 pages.