Every once in a while, you add a book to your TBR based on some glowing recommendations. You read it and finish the book, going, “Was it me? Am I just not smart enough to understand this book?” That was History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Grove Atlantic, 2017) for me.
Madeline lives way out in the woods of Northern Minnesota. It’s an isolated life with her parents (who might not actually be her parents?), especially since she’d grown up surrounded by the members of the Christian cult her parents had once participated in. Madeline’s life is school, chores, her dogs, the lake, the woods…and that’s it. Until Mr. Greierson, a teacher who ends up being marked as a pedophile, appears at her school. Madeline develops what ends up being a lifelong obsession with both Mr. Greierson and Lily, a fellow student whose involvement with Mr. Greierson is never really clarified.
What really sets the story in motion is the appearance of a new family, the Gardners, in the house across the lake. Patra and her son Paul are staying there while her husband Leo, a supposedly brilliant astronomer, is doing work in Hawaii. Patra, to whom Madeline introduces herself as Linda (for reasons that are also never clarified), enlists the young teenager to babysit Paul, and Madeline/Linda develops a strange attachment to this family as well. But all is not well with the Gardners, as we see in snips and flashes early on in this non-linear story; a death and a trial are looming large in everyone’s future.
This was so…strange. At first, I wasn’t sure of how reliable a narrator Madeline/Linda was. She was a bizarre character who, at the very least, lacked a large range of social skills, possibly because of having been raised in the cult- due to the non-linear story structure (which I didn’t care for at all), bits about the cult background only appeared here and there and it wasn’t fully expanded upon, so I was left feeling empty about that. Her peculiar behavior towards pretty much every single character in this book, with the exception of Paul, kept me squinting at my kindle. Her obsession with Mr. Greierson, who ended up being caught with a bunch of child pornography in a box in his bathroom, stretched on far into her adulthood and, at least for me, didn’t add much to the story, other than to reinforce that there was something completely off about her. And was she planning on killing Lily at one point? Was that was that was? I was seriously confused about so much in this book.
What I did enjoy was the seeming contrast between Leo’s ‘genius’ (Madeline/Linda didn’t find him impressive, for what that’s worth) and his steadfast devotion to Christian Science, the religion he was raised in. Even though he was a scientist (in the literal sense of the word), Leo remained committed to the idea that his son’s illness wasn’t real in the face of conflicting evidence. Sadly, this isn’t uncommon; an excellent book that expands on this topic (and will help you understand the outcome of the trial, if you’ve read this or are planning to) is Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment by Janet Heimlich. It’s anger-inducing, especially in regards to the laws that allow religious-based child neglect (and the people who fight so hard to keep those laws in place while children suffer and die), but it’s a hugely important book that I don’t think has gotten enough attention. It’s one of those books that has a permanent place on my shelves. Leo’s ability to draw Patra into his beliefs, even though she wasn’t as dogged as he was, was…chilling, to say the least, but I suppose that’s where the naiveté everyone talked about in regards to Patra came into play.
So this book? Strange. I didn’t care for its non-linear structure (sooooooooo many times, after yet another zillion pages’ worth of description of the events leading up to The Event, I was mentally screaming at my kindle, ‘JUST GET TO THE POINT! GET IT OVER WITH ALREADY!’); I didn’t find the narrator at all sympathetic, relatable, likable, or interesting; and I felt as though I never quite understood what the author was attempting. Knowing that this was on the list for the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2017 made me feel…like I wasn’t smart enough to get this book. Like I was missing some crucial part of my brain that would’ve helped me to understand why this was a piece of literature to be celebrated. I understand things like, say, Lolita; I see the value in telling ugly stories in a beautiful way. I didn’t get this particular book, though, and it left me with the feeling that somewhere, there are a bunch of champagne-sipping highbrow professors and literary critics who are mocking my lack of understanding and ability to think critically about this book.
Did you read this? Stacey from Unruly Reader mentioned she couldn’t get into it either, which makes me feel a little better that I’m not the only one! If you loved it or weren’t a fan, I want to hear your thoughts. What do you do when you come across books that you just don’t get?