The setting of an old commune in northern Minnesota intrigued me and then the book, a debut novel, got on the Man Booker Prize Short List and chosen as one of the Booker Prize Reading Group selections. Okay fine – (and I read it now instead of waiting for August 2018 as scheduled – heh – I might read it again then, too).
History of Wolves
by Emily Fridlund
2017 / 288 pages
read by Susan Bennett – 9h 12m
rating: 8.75 ~ A- / literary suspense
This novel might be disappointing for readers who enjoy the usual Booker nominees or for readers who are looking for a crime novel set in Minnesota. It’s not really either one of those although there are both themes and suspense galore.
I’d put it in the same category as Did You Ever Have a Family? by Bill Clegg which was longlisted in 2015 – or Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh of 2016. The inclusion of actual suspense novels is not recent, but it’s not that old, either – and it’s a tricky category.
Anyway, my reaction – the book is not nearly as much about the setting as I’d hoped. Rather it’s about a young girl named Madeline (aka Linda). Madeline lives with her parents, very poor aging hippies, in an abandoned commune where she seems to have abundant love and minimal supervision. She has few friends at school, where she’s known as Linda, but she’s of the age where she wants to do things on her own and think for herself – – it’s a “coming-of-age” story in a huge sense.
Madeline babysits Paul, the 4-year old son of Leon and Patra Gardner, newcomers to the area. The older Leon is gone for work much of the time while his young wife, Patra, seems lonely and rather restless. Madeline and Patra meet in the park and there is a rather disturbing scene between Paul and a little girl who gets hurt.
The small fictional town of Loose River is remote – a couple hours drive from Duluth and maybe a ways north of Bemiji – I’m familiar with the area. Madeline shares the school gossip about Lily, a girl who is possibly having a sexual relationship with a teacher Madeline had a crush on – but who, it turns out, had a history from his prior job in California.
The narrative is split into two threads – the first occurs when the protagonist is 15 years old and follows her as she cares for Paul and goes to Detroit with the family – etc.
The other thread, set eleven years later and in present day, appears later in the book when Linda is 26 years old and living in Minneapolis. The suspense starts building about half way when there’s a spot of foreshadowing telling the reader there will be a trial.
The themes – at first this book feels as though it’s a typical well done suspense novel, but the themes eventually take over as though from underneath. There’s family and love and guilt and belief, and guilt and thinking. Can you be guilty or innocent based on your beliefs – or does it have to be based on your actions? How far do beliefs go to mitigate your actions? – How about in court? How about in your heart?
One or two more things – First – the narrator is excellent. Okay – second this seems like a truly good young people’s novel – not a Young Adult novel – but a novel which 20-somethings will enjoy. I tend to be older and want the old Booker Short List to not change from the 1980s or so – and prior. This is more of a new generation’s literature – just my o, folks.