Emily Fridlund creates a palpable sense of dread from the very beginning of her fiction debut, History of Wolves. We feel that something terrible will happen. Has happened. By the second paragraph we come to realize that the victim of the terrible thing that will happen, or has happened, is Paul, an innocent four-year-old child. It is a nauseating realization.
Our guide through the events is Madeline, aka Mattie, aka Linda, a fourteen, then turned fifteen-year-old girl who became Paul's babysitter one summer. She narrates the story from the vantage point of age thirty-seven, but she is seeing the tragedy of that fateful summer through the eyes of a teenager and still trying to make sense of it all.
Linda, as she was mostly called, grew up in the woods of Minnesota beside a lake. It was an isolated spot that had once been the site of a commune, but, by the time that we meet Linda and her parents, only they are left living in a rundown, ramshackle, unfinished cabin and eking out a living by fishing, selling crafts, and doing odd jobs.
For a child, it was, in many ways, an idyllic existence. She grows up solitary and unsupervised, able to ramble through the woods or paddle her canoe across the lake on her own. She also grows up lacking social skills and unable to decipher people and their actions.
She is obsessed with wolves, although she's never seen one in the wild. When her teacher invites her to participate in a competition called "History Odyssey," she makes her presentation about wolves. When one of the judges asks what wolves have to do with humans, Linda replies that they have nothing to do with them; they avoid humans whenever possible. That might also be true of Linda and her parents.
When a new family moves into the cabin across the lake, everything changes for Linda. She starts by spying on them. Then she meets the mother and young son one day while walking. By this time, the father is away in Hawaii doing his job as an astronomer of charting the heavens. Slowly, Linda becomes obsessed with the family and becomes a part of their daily life. She's hired as a babysitter for the boy.
Early on, Linda has a feeling that something is a bit "off" about the child, but she's a teenager with limited knowledge and experience. How is she to interpret what she sees?
When the father comes home for a visit on Memorial Day weekend, the "offness" becomes even more pronounced. Something seems obviously wrong with the child but the parents keep insisting that everything is fine. Who is the teenage babysitter to argue?
This is a novel of many themes: teenage sexual yearnings, a teacher accused of pedophilia, religious fanaticism, child neglect and/or abuse, how children are pawns of their parents'/caretakers' religious/political/social dogma, how the state rewards or punishes acting on primal urges. They are all explored through a narrative that goes back and forth in time, from teenage Linda's terrible summer to twenty-six-year-old Linda's time with her lover in the Cities and, finally, to thirty-seven-year-old Linda looking back and trying to understand. For the most part, I thought this back and forth narrative worked very well and helped to keep the tension of the psychological thriller high. It was only at the end that I felt a little bit let down. But until that final moment, I was with Emily Fridlund's Linda all the way, hanging on her every word.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars