Cover image for History of wolves : a novel / Emily Fridlund.
History of wolves : a novel / Emily Fridlund.
First edition.

First Grove Atlantic Hardcover edition.
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Atlantic Monthly Press : distributed by Publishers Group West, 2017.
Physical Description:
279 pages ; 22 cm
"Fourteen-year-old Linda lives with her parents in the beautiful, 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 outlander at school, Linda is drawn to the enigmatic, attractive Lily and new history teacher Mr. Grierson. When Mr. Grierson is charged with possessing child pornography, the implications of his arrest deeply affect 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, Paul. It seems that her life finally has purpose but with this new sense of belonging she is also drawn into secrets she doesn't understand. Over the course of a few days, Linda makes a set of choices that reverberate throughout her life. As she struggles to find a way out of the sequestered world into which she was born, Linda confronts the life-and-death consequences of the things people do-and fail to do-for the people they love. Winner of the McGinnis-Ritchie award for its first chapter, Emily Fridlund's propulsive and gorgeously written History of Wolves introduces a new writer of enormous range and talent"-- Provided by publisher.
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"So delicately calibrated and precisely beautiful that one might not immediately sense the sledgehammer of pain building inside this book. And I mean that in the best way. What powerful tension and depth this provides!"--Aimee Bender

Fourteen-year-old Linda lives with her parents in the beautiful, 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 outlander at school, Linda is drawn to the enigmatic, attractive Lily and new history teacher Mr. Grierson. When Mr. Grierson is charged with possessing child pornography, the implications of his arrest deeply affect 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, Paul. It seems that her life finally has purpose but with this new sense of belonging she is also drawn into secrets she doesn't understand. Over the course of a few days, Linda makes a set of choices that reverberate throughout her life. As she struggles to find a way out of the sequestered world into which she was born, Linda confronts the life-and-death consequences of the things people do--and fail to do--for the people they love.

Winner of the McGinnis-Ritchie award for its first chapter, Emily Fridlund's propulsive and gorgeously written History of Wolves introduces a new writer of enormous range and talent.

Author Notes

Emily Fridlund grew up in Minnesota and currently resides in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Her fiction has appeared in a variety of journals, including Boston Review, Zyzzyva, Five Chapters, New Orleans Review, Sou'wester, New Delta Review, Chariton Review, The Portland Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly. She holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. Fridlund's collection of stories, Catapult , was a finalist for the Noemi Book Award for Fiction and the Tartts First Fiction Award. It won the Mary McCarthy Prize and will be published by Sarabande in 2017. The opening chapter of History of Wolves was published in Southwest Review and won the 2013 McGinnis-Ritchie Award for Fiction.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

In Fridlund's stellar debut novel, 14-year-old Linda, an observant loner growing up in the Minnesota woods, becomes intrigued with the Gardners, the young family that moves in across the lake from her home. As she gets to know them, she realizes that something is amiss. Having been raised in a commune by unconventional parents, Linda is prone to provocative statements and challenging authority. She's also fascinated by the scandal that occurs when Lily Holburn, a student at her school, accuses a teacher, Adam Grierson, of inappropriate behavior but then recants her testimony. At the same time, Linda forges a friendship with the comparatively worldly Patra Gardner and her endearing four-year-old, Paul, whom Linda babysits for a summer before his sudden and mysterious death. Matters take a curious turn once Patra's husband, an older man named Leo, returns after months away at work. Fridlund expertly laces Linda's possessive protectiveness for Patra with something darker, bordering on romantic jealousy. A sense of foreboding subtly permeates the story as Fridlund slowly reveals what happened to Paul. Her wordsmithing is fantastic, rife with vivid turns of phrase. Fridlund has elegantly crafted a striking protagonist whose dark leanings cap off the tragedy at the heart of this book, which is moving and disturbing, and which will stay with the reader. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi Inc. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

LINDA, THE PROTAGONIST of Emily Fridlund's debut novel, hails from Minnesota's north woods and says little. If you have spent any amount of time in this part of the country, this reticence should be familiar. It is as if a code of silence blankets the land, much like subfreezing temperatures do for many months of the year. As Linda remarks upon venturing outdoors one afternoon, "My face changed into something other than face, got rubbed out." The cold is indifferent to human comfort and so too, Linda suspects, are most humans - at least to the comfort of others. Linda's earliest years were spent on a commune where child-rearing duties were shared by all adults; at one point she wonders whether her low-energy parents, who meander along the perimeter of the action, never mattering much, are really hers. When a teacher taps a teenage Linda to represent her high school at History Odyssey, she selects wolves as her topic. She is unfazed by the judge's verdict that her report on wolves falls into the category of natural history and so misses the point. The rules of fiction dictate that trouble will start once Linda's attention turns toward people. The first development is the rumor that the aforementioned teacher likes some of his students too much. Then a couple with a young child move into a newly built house across the lake. They are from the ranks of citified "summer people," and Linda observes their halting gestures to inhabit the north with a blend of fascination and scorn. Their relative wealth will not compensate for their inexperience, that is obvious. It is not giving away too much to reveal that after ratcheting up the tension, Fridlund does not take readers to the sunless place many might guess - a warren of child pornographers deep in the woods, an inconvenient hole in the ice. That I was relieved at the slow-motion tragedy that does unfold is testimony to Fridlund's daring. An artful story of sexual awakening and identity formation turns more stomach-churning; child sacrifice takes many forms, and sometimes the act doesn't require bloodshed but simply adults too wedded to their ideals. As the plot pivots toward Linda's growing attachment to the family across the lake, character becomes destiny. The young wife, Patra, has an elfin quality that belies an essential passivity. That the professor husband is named Leo is something of a joke. The only thing leonine about him is the power he wields languorously over his family; he is horrendously ill-equipped to steward the deference shown him. When Linda is hired to babysit for their 4-year-old, she exhibits the impatience one feels only for a creature more or less one's peer - or a competitor for affection. It is unclear, even to Linda herself, which familial role she is playing understudy for. Few images in contemporary fiction have struck me as forcefully as that of Patra bent over in the driveway in anguish, mouth cracked open in a Munchlike silent scream. Fridlund has a tendency to double up on her descriptors, to use two adjectives where one would do. But she is masterly when she lets more scraped-down prose push a series of elemental questions to the fore: Do intentions matter? What price will you pay to feel wanted? How does it feel to be both guilty and exonerated? The result is a novel of ideas that reads like smart pulp, a page-turner of craft and calibration. MEGAN HUSTAD is the author of "More Than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments."

Library Journal Review

Teenager Linda lives near the Walleye Capital of the World, but no one would mistake her Minnesota town for Lake Wobegon. In this chilling story, Linda looks back on her troubled school years, when she was caught up in situations beyond her control or comprehension. The girl's parents are the last holdouts of a failed commune on a northern lake; the family lives in an isolated shack on the town's outskirts with four dogs chained up outside. When Linda takes a job babysitting a little boy named Paul, whose parents have moved in down the road, Paul becomes attached to her. Then something goes horribly wrong and his parents, too, are no help. Indeed, the wolves that Linda is so fascinated by might do a better job of parenting than the clueless adults in this novel. VERDICT -Fridlund is a fine writer who excels at getting inside the head of an unhappy youth and revealing how neglect and isolation scar a child for life. Yet this first novel, as cold and bleak as a Minnesota winter, may be too dark for some readers. [See Prepub Alert, 7/25/16.]-Leslie -Patterson, Rehoboth, MA © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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 mine--not 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 now?black bearded, tassel shouldered?though 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, saying--as 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 hello--grins and eyebrows, teeth and gums--but 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 thought--measuring the last swallow of Gatorade in my little waxed cup--how 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 realized?in an odd flash, like a too-bright light passing over him?he 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, grateful?I knew?not 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 churches--one 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 stud--delicate, difficult screw--in his ear. "I'm still working out the kinks in my lesson plans. What were you studying before I arrived?""Russia.""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.""Fourteen.""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 precious?something wiggling and still alive--that 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 week?Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday?because 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 them--to the Karens or to Lily Holburn--saying, "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 think--because I crossed my arms and did poorly on tests--that 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. Excerpted from History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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