Review: ‘History of Wolves’ by Emily Fridlund9th October 2017
Wolves, even since the Anglo-Saxon period, have always been symbolic of humanity’s deepest anxieties. Representing the unexplained, lurking on the fringes of society, wolves embody the fear of the unknown. Beginning Madeline’s coming-of-age story, then, with the history of wolves rather than humans, immediately alienates the bildungsroman from traditional ‘growing up’ novels. Instead, Madeline seems unable to progress beyond the ancient history of the woodlands she lives in, her mother’s nostalgia for her youth, and her father’s stagnating way of life.
Madeline cannot, moreover, escape the rumours that follow her around school, taunting her as a ‘freak’ or ‘Commie’. The strangeness of her childhood – growing up in a commune, her parents a part of a now-disbanded cult – corresponds to her life as a teenager, equally isolated by living deep in Minnesota’s wilderness, surrounded only by lakes and forest. Madeline’s schoolmates relish attacking her upbringing, meaning Madeline exists almost only as an outsider. She survives as a solitary observer, whose freezing, bitter landscape parallels her own loneliness. That is until everything changes: a family moves in across the lake.
Suddenly, Madeline has a space for herself as babysitter for the couple’s young child, Paul. She no longer feels alone. Yet the elation of this new situation is dampened by something that does not feel quite right. Madeline does not understand what secrets she is being drawn into, what is yet to unfold. Having felt isolated all her life, Madeline is reluctant to let go of Paul and his mother, turning a blind eye again, and again, to something which unsettles her to her core.
Yet it is hard to blame Madeline, despite her unwillingness to ever question the family. Instead, we feel pity – but thankfully, Fridlund does not develop this pity from stereotypical teenage tropes. Pity for Madeline originates not from her vulnerability or awkwardness – she is self-possessed and confident, commanding an incredible knowledge of the forest she lives in – but from her sense of hollowness. Madeline seems empty, almost nameless, shifting from Madeline to Linda to Mattie with no care or emotion. She is numb not only to the painfully cold winters of Minnesota, but to her own existence. Pity for Madeline comes from her sense of worthlessness, which permeates the book without ever being said.
This emotion is not only reserved for Madeline, however, but extends across the whole novel. There is pity for Madeline’s parents, who live alone in the woods, never moving on from the failed experiment of their commune. There is pity for her schoolmates, destined to live out predictable lives in their small town, unlikely to ever leave. There is even pity for Mr. Grierson, Madeline’s new history teacher, despite his uncomfortable interest in the young girls of Madeline’s class. Similar to The Bell Jar, Fridlund refuses to allow any character to be exempt from the audience’s sympathy.
Yet in some ways, it is not the individual that is the focus of this novel. Lingering beneath an imposing landscape of ice, water, and woodland, is concern about the individual’s position in nature. Fridlund asks repeatedly and pointedly whether we can really escape our roots in the wilderness. In harrowing scenes of isolation, which are imbued with a bitter, creeping cold we can sense, the darker side of human nature is revealed. Even when Madeline is an adult, living in the city, it seems as though something is dormant within her, vying to return to a subsistence lifestyle.
The unknown – the mysteries of the woodland, the rumours of Madeline’s school, the empty image of the frozen lake – seems almost preferable to the understood in this novel.
Whenever a secret is unveiled, the light shone on mysterious circumstances, the reader cannot help but wish to return to darkness.
The meticulously explained, the justified, and the comprehended brings no satisfaction. The audience, just like Madeline, would rather turn back to nature, to simplicity, to a lack of higher knowledge – but it is impossible.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, such a well-constructed novel is sure to make the reader ache, though not necessarily for more. Out of pity, fear, and the abrasive landscape, the audience is subjected to the same torture as the narrator, a history which is oppressive and cannot be escaped.