History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

“Linda has an idiosyncratic home life: her parents live in abandoned commune cabins in northern Minnesota and are hanging on to the last vestiges of a faded counter-culture world. The kids at school call her 'Freak', or 'Commie'. She is an outsider in all things. Her understanding of the world comes from her observations at school, where her teacher is accused of possessing child pornography, and from watching the seemingly ordinary life of a family she babysits for. Yet while the accusation against the teacher is perhaps more innocent than it seemed at first, the ordinary family turns out to be more complicated. As Linda insinuates her way into the family's orbit, she realizes they are hiding something. If she tells the truth, she will lose the normal family life she is beginning to enjoy with them; but if she doesn't, their son may die.”

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund transcended so many genres it is hard to pin down exactly what it is. Part contemporary coming-of-age novel, part suspense novel, part enigma. This story had so many moving parts that, honestly, a significant reason I kept reading the book was simply to figure out what Fridlund was trying to do with them. Linda, as an adult, narrates the story of her fourteenth year spent babysitting the four-year-old son of her new neighbors. (Note: this story is broken up with several smaller story lines that served, for me, as little more than a distraction from the main event. I’ll talk about those later.)

One consistently strong aspect of History of Wolves is the sheer dreariness imbued into every word, description, and situation. The language Fridlund uses to describe the weather and the landscape of her northern Minnesota home is enough to send permanent chills down my spine. Every moment, even the seemingly happy ones, feel as if they are shrouded in despair. This makes sense considering an adult Linda is relaying the story back to us with full understanding of how each and every event of that year played into the heartbreaking conclusion.

Linda, as a character, also worked very well for me. What a protagonist! She has moments of real insight followed by moments of childlike naivete, and her ability to be both kind and cruel is maddening, particularly when you feel she is being kind to all the wrong people. Again, though, these frustrating attributes work to the character’s benefit. Linda felt like a real teenage girl, wrapped up in selfishness, self-doubt, and a deep desire for acceptance.

However, on a sour note, I wanted more from this debut novel. There are threads woven through this story that seem unfinished. Small (and occasionally large) details from the narrative that feel as if they are meant to hold more meaning for the reader than they do. As I said earlier, this story had a lot of moving parts, and, unfortunately, I’m not certain I closed this book with a complete understanding of how all those parts fit together.

Overall, Emily Fridlund’s debut novel, History of Wolves, entranced me with its powerful language and beautifully complicated protagonist, but the story itself took a few wrong turns. I even had the thought at one point during my reading that I wish this book had been split into two separate stories rather than ground down into one watered down version of both. However, I wouldn’t want these criticisms to act as a deterrent from reading this book. Emily Fridlund is an author I intend to follow, and I can’t wait to read what she writes next. 

Buy a copy of Fridlund's debut novel, published in January 2017 by Atlantic Monthly Press. 

Happy Reading,