2017 Man Booker Review: History of Wolves

6th September 2017

By Lisa Botwright

Linda is a tiny scrap of a teenage girl living among the vast lakes and huge forests of North Minnesota. ‘In winter, the trees against the orange sky look like veins’, Linda observes, bringing the the frozen and remote landscape vividly to life: indeed, it’s so beautifully drawn that it’s almost a central character of the book. We smell ‘the syrupy resins from the pines and the rot of the clumps of snow in the ravines’, as Linda walks her long walk home from school, and see, as she does, that ‘almost nothing on the lake moves or breathes. It is the worst part of winter – a waste of white in every direction.’

Linda is lonely. The other girls at school call her ‘freak’ and ‘commie’ – and even though it’s dark by the time she gets home, her parents show little interest in her return either. Her mother has ‘traded whatever hippie fanaticism she had left for Christianity’ and ‘nods off each night sewing quilts for prison inmates’. Her similarly distant father ‘spends his evenings scavenging wood.’ She has the family dogs for company, but they seem as wild as their owners – almost akin to the wolves Linda is studying for her history project, and which gives us the title of the book.

She misses the companionship of the commune in which she grew up – even though it’s this unconventional start that’s the cause of her ostracism from her classmates. She’s so vulnerable that she even envies the other forlorn and isolated figure in her class: Lily, whose fragile prettiness has attracted the inappropriate attention of their History teacher, Mr Grierson. Linda looks on jealously as Lily ‘smiles into her sleeve’ while Grierson makes feeble jokes to entertain his class favourite.

So when a family of out-of-towners move into a nearby lake house, Linda is understandably drawn to the new arrivals. She meets the mother, Patra, and her young son, Paul, when they are walking in the woods one day. The father, an academic, is working away in Hawaii.

Patra seems vulnerable too, and an intense relationship quickly builds between three of them. ‘I was happy,’ reflects Linda. ‘I barely recognised the feeling.’

However, it soon becomes apparent that Linda’s happiness is to be short-lived, as Patra and her husband’s misguided reason for moving to the wilderness becomes central to the shocking outcome of the story.

This is a tense and atmospheric coming-of-age novel, which begins with a death and hints early on of more tragedy to come. Linda’s needy relationship with the new family is built skilfully, but I would have been interested in further elaboration about her relationship with parents: I found the clues hinting at the root of that neediness frustratingly vague.

In an interview earlier this year for independent bookseller Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, Fridlund talks about how interesting she finds the adolescent voice. “It has this potential for being really canny and sharp and thought-provoking. But also, because young people are young, they don't have a lot of experience, and so there can be that potential for innocence or ignorance.” What makes this book a worthy longlister is the way it addresses the full, destructive range of human folly and frailty, and how Linda navigates her way through the murky shortcomings of the adults surrounding her, despite her youth and innocence.

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