One of theNew York Times' 100 Notable Books of 2017; An NPR and MPR Best Books of 2017; #1 Indie Next Pick; A New York Times Editors’ Choice; A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection; One of USA Today’s Notable Books; An Amazon Best Book of the Month; An ABA Indies Introduce Selection
“The chilly power of History of Wolves packs a wallop that’s hard to shake off . . . an elegant, troubling debut.” Los Angeles Times
“Starkly affecting . . . one of the year’s most lauded debuts.” Entertainment Weekly
Teenage Linda lives with her parents in the austere woods of northern Minnesota, where their nearly abandoned commune stands as a last vestige of a lost counter-culture world. Isolated at home and an outsider at school, Linda is drawn to the enigmatic Lily and new history teacher Mr. Grierson. When Mr. Grierson is faced with child pornography charges, his arrest deeply affects Linda as she wrestles with her own fledgling desires and craving to belong. And then the young Gardner family moves in across the lake and Linda finds herself welcomed into their home as a babysitter for their little boy. But with this new sense of belonging comes expectations and secrets she doesn’t understand and, over the course of a summer, Linda makes a set of choices that reverberate throughout her life. One of the most daring literary debuts of the year and a national bestseller, History of Wolves is an agonizing and gorgeously written novel from an urgent, new voice in American fiction.
“Imagine one of those twisty ‘Girl’-titled mysteries in the hands of a great stylist. Fridlund’s debut is something like that, but better . . . an indelible story of fascination and dread.” New York magazine
“This captivating debut from a prodigious new talent injects taut suspense into a teenage girl’s awakenings as she confronts a web of mysteries in the chilly woods of Minnesota. A lavishly written novel with more than a glimmer of dread.” O Magazine, one of 10 Titles to Pick Up Now
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
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It’s not that I never think about Paul. He comes to me occasionally before I’m fully awake, though I almost never remember what he said, or what I did or didn’t do to him. In my mind, the kid just plops down into my lap. Boom. That’s how I know it’s him: there’s no interest in me, no hesitation. We’re sitting in the Nature Center on a late afternoon like any other, and his body moves automatically toward minenot out of love or respect, but simply because he hasn’t yet learned the etiquette of minding where his body stops and another begins. He’s four, he’s got an owl puzzle to do, don’t talk to him. I don’t. Outside the window, an avalanche of poplar fluff floats by, silent and weightless as air. The sunlight shifts, the puzzle cleaves into an owl and comes apart again, I prod Paul to standing. Time to go. It’s time. But in the second before we rise, before he whines out his protest and asks to stay a little longer, he leans back against my chest, yawning. And my throat cinches closed. Because it’s strange, you know? It’s marvelous, and sad too, how good it can feel to have your body taken for granted.
Before Paul, I’d known just one person who’d gone from living to dead. He was Mr. Adler, my eighth-grade history teacher. He wore brown corduroy suits and white tennis shoes, and though his subject was America he preferred to talk about czars. He once showed us a photograph of Russia’s last emperor, and that’s how I think of him nowblack bearded, tassel shoulderedthough in fact Mr. Adler was always clean shaven and plodding. I was in English class when his fourth-period student burst in saying Mr. Adler had fallen. We crowded across the hall, and there he lay facedown on the floor, eyes closed, blue lips suctioning the carpet. “Does he have epilepsy?” someone asked. “Does he have pills?” We were all repulsed. The Boy Scouts argued over proper CPR techniques, while the gifted and talented kids reviewed his symptoms in hysterical whispers. I had to force myself to go to him. I crouched down and took Mr. Adler’s dry-meat hand. It was early November. He was darkening the carpet with drool, gasping in air between longer and longer intervals, and I remember a distant bonfire scent. Someone was burning garbage in plastic bags, some janitor getting rid of leaves and pumpkin rinds before the first big snow.
When the paramedics finally loaded Mr. Adler’s body onto a stretcher, the Boy Scouts trailed behind like puppies, hoping for an assignment. They wanted a door to open, something heavy to lift. In the hallway, girls stood sniffling in clumps. A few teachers held their palms to their chests, uncertain what to say or do now.
“That a Doors song?” one of the paramedics asked. He’d stayed behind to pass out packets of saltines to light-headed students. I shrugged. I must have been humming out loud. He gave me orange Gatorade in a Dixie Cup, sayingas if I were the one he’d come to save, as if his duty were to root out sickness in whatever living thing he could find“Drink slow now. Do it in sips.”
The Walleye Capital of the World we were called back then. There was a sign to this effect out on Route 10 and a mural of three mohawked fish on the side of the diner. Those guys were always waving a finny hellogrins and eyebrows, teeth and gumsbut no one came from out of town to fish, or do much at all, once the big lakes froze up in November. We didn’t have the resort in those days, only a seedy motel. Downtown went: diner, hardware, bait and tackle, bank. The most impressive place in Loose River back then was the old timber mill, I think, and that was because it was half burned down, charred black planks towering over the banks of the river. Almost everything official, the hospital and DMV and Burger King and police station, were twenty-plus miles down the road in Whitewood.
The day the Whitewood paramedics took Mr. Adler away they tooted the ambulance horn as they left the school parking lot. We all stood at the windows and watched, even the hockey players in their yellowed caps, even the cheerleaders with their static-charged bangs. Snow was coming down by then, hard. As the ambulance slid around the corner, its headlights raked crazily through the flurries gusting across the road. “Shouldn’t there be sirens?” someone asked, and I thoughtmeasuring the last swallow of Gatorade in my little waxed cuphow stupid can people be?
Mr. Adler’s replacement was Mr. Grierson, and he arrived a month before Christmas with a deep, otherworldly tan. He wore one gold hoop earring and a brilliant white shirt with pearly buttons. We learned later that he’d come from California, from a private girls’ school on the sea. No one knew what brought him all the way to northern Minnesota, midwinter, but after the first week of class, he took down Mr. Adler’s maps of the Russian Empire and replaced them with enlarged copies of the US Constitution. He announced he’d double majored in theater in college, which explained why he stood in front of the class one day with his arms outstretched reciting the whole Declaration of Independence by heart. Not just the soaring parts about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but the needling, wretched list of tyrannies against the colonies. I could see how badly he wanted to be liked. “What does it mean?” Mr. Grierson asked when he got to the part about mutually pledging our sacred honor.
The hockey players slept innocently on folded hands. Even the gifted and talented kids were unmoved, clicking their mechanical pencils until the lead protruded obscenely, like hospital needles. They jousted each other across the aisles. “En garde!” they hissed, contemptuously.
Mr. Grierson sat down on Mr. Adler’s desk. He was breathless from his recitation, and I realizedin an odd flash, like a too-bright light passing over himhe was middle-aged. I could see sweat on his face, his pulse pounding under gray neck stubble. “People. Guys. What does it mean that the rights of man are self-evident? Come on. You know this.”
I saw his eyes rest on Lily Holburn, who had sleek black hair and was wearing, despite the cold, a sheer crimson sweater. He seemed to think her beauty could rescue him, that she would be, because she was prettier than the rest of us, kind. Lily had big brown eyes, dyslexia, no pencil, a boyfriend. Her face slowly reddened under Mr. Grierson’s gaze.
She blinked. He nodded at her, promising implicitly that, whatever she said, he’d agree. She gave a deer-like lick of her lips.
I don’t know why I raised my hand. It wasn’t that I felt sorry for her exactly. Or him.
It was just that the tension became unbearable for a moment, out of all proportion to the occasion. “It means some things don’t have to be proven,” I offered. “Some things are simply true. There’s no changing them.”
“That’s right!” he said, gratefulI knewnot to me in particular, but to some hoop of luck he felt he’d stumbled into. I could do that. Give people what they wanted without them knowing it came from me. Without saying a word, Lily could make people feel encouraged, blessed. She had dimples on her cheeks, nipples that flashed like signs from God through her sweater. I was flat chested, plain as a banister. I made people feel judged.
Winter collapsed on us that year. It knelt down, exhausted, and stayed. In the middle of December so much snow fell the gym roof buckled and school was canceled for a week. With school out, the hockey players went ice fishing. The Boy Scouts played hockey on the ponds. Then came Christmas with its strings of colored lights up and down Main Street, and the competing nativity scenes at the Lutheran and Catholic churchesone with painted sandbags standing in as sheep, and the other with baby Jesus sculpted out of a lump of ice. New Year’s brought another serious storm. By the time school started again in January, Mr. Grierson’s crisp white shirts had been replaced with nondescript sweaters, his hoop earring with a stud. Someone must have taught him to use the Scantron machine, because after a week’s worth of lectures on Lewis and Clark, he gave his first test. While we hunched at our desks filling tiny circles, he walked up and down the aisles, clicking a ballpoint pen.
The next day, Mr. Grierson asked me to stay after class. He sat behind his desk and touched his lips, which were chapped and flaking off beneath his fingers. “You didn’t do very well on your exam,” he told me.
He was waiting for an explanation and I lifted my shoulders defensively. But before I could say a word, he said, “Look, I’m sorry.” He twisted the studdelicate, difficult screwin his ear. “I’m still working out the kinks in my lesson plans. What were you studying before I arrived?”
“Ah.” A look of scorn passed over his face, followed immediately by pleasure. “The Cold War lingers in the backcountry.”
I defended Mr. Adler. “It wasn’t the Soviet Union we were talking about. It was czars.”
“Oh, Mattie.” No one ever called me that. It was like being tapped on the shoulder from behind. My name was Madeline, but at school I was called Linda, or Commie, or Freak. I pulled my hands into balls in my sleeves. Mr. Grierson went on. “No one cared about the czars before Stalin and the bomb. They were puppets on a faraway stage, utterly insignificant. Then all the Mr. Adlers went to college in 1961 and there was general nostalgia for the old Russian toys, the inbred princesses from another century. Their ineffectuality made them interesting. You understand?” He smiled then, closing his eyes a little. His front teeth were white, his canines yellow. “But you’re thirteen.”
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry if this has started off badly. We’ll get on better footing soon.”
The next week he asked me to drop by his classroom after school. This time, he’d taken the stud out of his ear and set it on his desk. Very tenderly, with his forefinger and thumb, he was probing the flesh around his earlobe.
“Mattie,” he said, straightening up.
He had me sit in a blue plastic chair beside his desk. He set a stack of glossy brochures in my lap, made a tepee of his fingers. “Do me a favor? But don’t blame me for having to ask. That’s my job.” He squirmed.
That’s when he asked me to be the school’s representative in History Odyssey.
“This will be great,” he said, unconvincingly. “What you do is make a poster. Then you give a speech about Vietnam War registers, border crossings to Canada, etcetera. Or maybe you do the desecration of the Ojibwa peoples? Or those back-to-the land folks that settled up here. Something local, something ethically ambiguous. Something with constitutional implications.”
“I want to do wolves,” I told him.
“What, a history of wolves?” He was puzzled. Then he shook his head and grinned. “Right. You’re a fourteen-year-old girl.” The skin bunched up around his eyes. “You all have a thing for horses and wolves. I love that. I love that. That’s so weird. What is that about?”
Because my parents didn’t own a car, this is how I got home when I missed the bus. I walked three miles down the plowed edge of Route 10 and then turned right on Still Lake Road. In another mile the road forked. The left side traced the lake northward and the right side turned into an unplowed hill. That’s where I stopped, stuffed my jeans into my socks, and readjusted the cuffs on my woolen mittens. In winter, the trees against the orange sky looked like veins. The sky between the branches looked like sunburn. It was twenty minutes through snow and sumac before the dogs heard me and started braying against their chains.
By the time I got home, it was dark. When I opened the door, I saw my mom hunched over the sink, arms elbow-deep in inky water. Long straight hair curtained her face and neck, which tended to give her a cagey look. But her voice was all midwestern vowels, all wide-open Kansas. “Is there a prayer for clogged drains?” she asked without turning around.
I set my mittens on the woodstove, where they would stiffen and no longer fit my hands just right in the morning. I left my jacket on, though. It was cold inside.
My mom, her own jacket damp with sink water, sat down heavily at the table. But she kept her greasy hands in the air like they were something precioussomething wiggling and still alivethat she’d snatched from a pond. Something she might feed us on, a pretty little pair of perch. “We need Drano. Crap.” She looked up into the air, then very slowly wiped her palms on her canvas pockets. “Please help. God of infinite pity for the pathetic farce that is human living.”
She was only half kidding. I knew that. I knew from stories how my parents had ridden in a stolen van to Loose River in the early eighties, how my father had stockpiled rifles and pot, and how, when the commune fell apart, my mother had traded whatever hippie fanaticism she had left for Christianity. For as long as I could remember she went to church three times a weekWednesday, Saturday, and Sundaybecause she held out hope that penance worked, that some of the past could be reversed, slowly and over years.
My mother believed in God, but grudgingly, like a grounded daughter.
“Do you think you could take one of the dogs with you and go back?”
“Back into town?” I was still shivering. The thought made me furious for a second, wiped clean of everything. I couldn’t feel my fingers.
“Or not.” She swung her long hair back and swiped her nose with her wrist. “No, not. It’s probably below zero out there. I’m sorry. I’ll go get another bucket.” She didn’t move from her chair, though. She was waiting for something. “I’m sorry I asked. You can’t be mad at me for asking.” She clasped her greasy hands together. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
For each sorry, her voice rose a half step.
I waited a second before I spoke. “It’s okay,” I said.
Here’s the thing about Mr. Grierson. I’d seen how he crouched down next to Lily’s desk. I’d seen how he said, “You’re doing fine,” and put his hand very carefully, like a paperweight, on her spine. How he lifted his fingertips and gave her a little pat. I saw how curious and frightened he was of the Karens, the cheerleaders, who sometimes pulled off their wool leg warmers and revealed bare winter skin, white and nubbed in gooseflesh. Their legwarmers gave them a rash, which they scratched until their scabs had to be dabbed with buds of toilet paper. I saw how he addressed every question in class to one of themto the Karens or to Lily Holburnsaying, “Anyone? Anyone home?” Then, making a phone of his hand, he’d lower his voice and growl, “Hello, Holburn residence, is Lily available?” Blushing, Lily would do a closed-mouth smile into the lip of her sleeve.
When I met with him after school, Mr. Grierson shook his head. “That was a stupid thing to do with the phone, right?” He was embarrassed. He wanted reassurance that everything was okay, that he was a good teacher. He wanted to be forgiven for all his little mistakes, and he seemed to thinkbecause I crossed my arms and did poorly on teststhat my mediocrity was deliberate, personal. “Here,” he said, sheepishly, sliding a narrow blue can across his desk. I took a few sips of his energy drink, something so sweet and caffeinated it made my heart pound almost instantly. After several more gulps I was trembling in my chair. I had to clench my teeth to keep them from chattering.
“Did Mr. Adler ever show movies?” he wanted to know.
I’m not sure why I played his game. I don’t know why I coddled him. “You show so many more movies than him,” I said.
He smiled with satisfaction. “How’s the project going, then?”
I didn’t answer that. Instead I took another sip of his energy drink, uninvited. I wanted him to know that I saw how he looked at Lily Holburn, that I comprehended that look better than she did, that, though I did not like him at although I found his phone joke creepy and his earring sad, I understood him. But the can was empty. I had to put my lips on metal and pretend to gulp. Outside the window, sleet was shellacking every snowdrift, turning the whole world hard as rock. It would be dark in an hour, less. The dogs would be pacing the far orbit of their chains, waiting. Mr. Grierson was putting on his jacket. “Shall we, then?” He never, never once asked how I got home.