History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund


I had a habit when I worked at the bookstore: pick up a contemporary novel, read the first page, see how it sounds. The number of bad books I encountered had me soured on contemporary literature. History of Wolves blows that bias away. Let me explain:

Summary: A girl who goes by a few different names grows up in the old mid-west. Mattie, Linda, etc. She has a strained family. She has a strained life at school. A typical teenager, but self-aware and in touch with what those teenage feelings mean. One summer, some out-of-towners build a house across the lake from Linda. She becomes a babysitter for their four-year-old. Tragedy strikes. If all of this sounds like a set-up for a YA novel, it is. Fridlund manages to catch the YA zeitgeist and elevate its tropes. The best thing I can say about History of Wolves is that it’s dead-serious but never seems it.

The Good: I’ll get this out of the way: for my money, History of Wolves is one of the top-five novels I’ve read, period. Here’s why:

  • Control: In a college writing course, a professor told me that the key to good writing is authorial control; Fridlund has her hands tight on the reigns. Her voice is sharp: “Winter collapsed on us that year. It knelt down, exhausted, and stayed.” Scenes last as long as they need to, sometimes just a couple lines.
  • Place: Even though I’ve never seen it, the rural Midwest is immediate and raw. Each tree is identified; you know the social power of the high school hockey team.
  • Thematic Structure: Linda namedrops the title in the first chapter when she presents a middle-school project on the History of Wolves. Then she goes home and feeds her family’s snarling dogs; she sees teeth in the men who want her and those who don’t; she grows and loses claws throughout the book. Each detail ties together but you only notice the ties after the fact; masterful.

I hinted at it before, but History manages to take the most accessible, popular genre out – one that’s defined by sticking to surface-level explorations, shrugging off every layer but the prettiest spring jacket – and builds a cavernous depth below that surface that somehow remains approachable. History reads effortlessly. You know everything you need to know immediately; but then it sticks and digs and tears into you hours after you’ve put the book down.

The Bad: Two chapters didn’t work for me. In the book’s dead center, Linda and her au pair family take a trip to Duluth. The structure changes. We don’t skip from place to place, time to time, breathlessly; instead, we follow the two-day trip from start to finish. I’m sure this was intentional. Thematically, the trip is plot-pivotal. However, Fridlund had sufficiently spoiled me with her bogglingly quick, refreshing prose that chapters 10 and 11 became a drag. That said, stick those two against most other writers’ work and they’d score a KO in the first round.

Final Thoughts: If this book says anything about contemporary fiction, I’m optimistic. It was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2017 so things look good.

I’m also frustrated. History of Wolves is Emily Fridlund’s debut novel. I thought I’d have it easy, right? Writing has been so dry lately, I’ll sweep in with something pretty good and shake everything up, right?

Fridlund up the bet. We’re playing at a thousand-dollar minimum. I’ve got to buff my game to match. To steal a line from an old Drake song, ‘I ain’t felt the pressure in a little while, it’s gon take some getting used to.’