In one classic nightmare, you seem to keep waking up only to experience a new version of the same terror. Or you’re running away from a monstrous being, and then, just when you think you’re safe, he comes from behind and looms over you. Emily Fridlund’s unnerving, beautifully crafted first novel, History of Wolves, recreates these implacable structures, moving back and forth in time, evading and then confronting trauma.
Madeline (Mattie/Linda) — 37 when she tells the story — was 14 when she spent a cold winter/spring as four-year-old Paul’s babysitter and friend. The novel opens with her later memories and half-dreams of him working an owl puzzle, the feeling of his body in her lap. By page two we know he’s died, and much of the rest of the book sets out to weave together an account of how this happened, a story both desolate and gripping.
Glimpses of the narrator’s adult life show her as adrift and self-punishing. Her life at home was even more wretched. In the childhood and teenage sequences of the book, Mattie and her parents are the last remnants of a commune in the woods of Northern Minnesota, with too much fish-skinning and family sniping and too little intimacy. She’s on the outside at school, too, which leaves her vulnerable to a small family of newcomers. At first she watches them from her home across the lake, but one day the young mother, Patra, and Paul have a biking spill near her house. Mattie introduces herself as Linda and so begins the process of self-transformation that will end in permanent heartbreak. Patra, who has dangerous gifts of selectively applied attention, wins over Mattie and hires her for regular babysitting while she revises her husband Leo’s cosmology.
The family seems puzzling and sophisticated to Linda, who becomes more and more involved in their lives, but still, frustratingly, a permanent outsider. In one of the novel’s rare jokes — the book’s emotional tones otherwise almost entirely evoke a deep winter — Fridlund seems to be peeping out from behind the curtain to outline her project. Patra, teasing Linda, says, “‘Oooh, let’s call you governess.’ She was laughing now. ‘That’s so much better. A babysitter would never be hired for Flora and Miles. You’ve read The Turn of the Screw? Or, a babysitter couldn’t fall in love with Mr. Rochester, right? And be the heroine. Governess you are.’”
The emotional entanglement and crosscurrents between Linda, Paul, Patra, and Leo are at the center of the book, but, as in a dream, other characters and events emerge — metaphorically meaningful, if dramatically tangential. Fridlund uses shards of intersecting storylines and glancing, uncomfortable juxtapositions to capture moments of rationalization, denial, and delusion. Linda becomes fascinated by Lily, a beautiful schoolmate, who accuses one of their teachers of sexual abuse. Her close observation, even stalking, of Lily, and her later preoccupation with the teacher’s fate, like the central plotline, embody questions of guilt, complicity, and the responsibility of the onlooker.
Just when the book seems to be about to take us into the heart of the story about Paul’s death, it leaps past it — a huge relief for the reader. And then, like a nightmare, the story returns to its most painful material and plunges us into a moment-by-moment experience of the self-delusions, complicity, and failures of nerve and understanding that lead to disaster.
The older Linda, a meticulous observer of the physical world, is somewhat blind to her younger self’s motives and what was happening with the people around her. Even as an adult, she doesn’t seem to understand the full import of what happened and how. Fridlund uses description and metaphor not only to create the tone but to allow us, through the conversations and events, to see what Linda doesn’t quite comprehend about her own feelings and actions, and the ways everyone’s beliefs, psychological mechanisms, and life circumstances bring about Paul’s death.
The book’s title comes from a speech young Mattie gives about wolves. And though the people display their own versions of the dominance/submission patterns Mattie describes in her talk, the families in History of Wolves could learn quite a bit about how to care for their cubs from actual wolves. The title and opening suggest a possible fabulism, but all of the strangeness in the book comes from Linda’s ongoing slight disassociation and the ordinary madness of human behavior. The novel feels dreamlike in its wondering, hypnotic gaze, as well as in its recursive structure, but it is entirely realistic in its events.
The first chapter, as a short story, won a 2013 McGinnis-Ritchie Award for Fiction from Southwest Review, and the knowing but still somehow innocent voice of the narrator moves easily between extreme lyricism and a lucid, graceful toughness. An ominous regret permeates the most ordinary moments of the book:
Even her laugh was saying goodbye. Why didn’t I just leave? All I had to do was blink. All I had to do was lift my mind away from her, and I could already see all those old trees blowing overhead as I walked along the lake, the same old moon scraping open some clouds and laying down a path of light. Oh, I liked night. I knew it well. For some reason, though, I was finding it hard to open the door. I stashed the folded bill in my pocket with the egg and spent a long time on my jacket zipper.
The apparent coolness of the surface — the exquisite descriptions of both the winter landscape and the bleak circumstances of the characters’ lives — covers an icy, baffled grief and rage. The regret, in the end, is a fatalistic one: not so much a wish to have prevented Paul’s death as to have escaped in time so as never to have been part of it.