Feels like: Walking alone through a shaded wood for hours, no end in sight, without smiling.
Song pairing: “Wolves” by Phosphorescence
“Instead I stood under scalding water in the shower for one magnificent minute, letting needles of water pluck open some feeling of woe, some feeling of desolation I didn’t know I had felt. A capsized feeling, a sense of the next thing coming already.”
If God exists, how does He let these kinds of things happen? This skeptical but familiar question is the skeletal structure of Emily Fridlund’s coming of age novel.
Linda is a 14 year old girl living with her family in the boggy Minnesota woods. Their home was once a crowded, bustling commune full of hippies and their group-raised children, but differences of opinion disintegrated the commune and Linda, her mother and father are all that remain. Linda is raised with an admirable affinity for naturalist survival, animals and the woods, often taking long walks and paddling out onto the lake for a sense of connection. She has a distinct lack of friends and her inability to relate to other people is a fine point to her love of animals: she feels closer to wolves than humans.
Plot points: Linda’s high school gets a new teacher who may be spending too much time eyeing his young students. New neighbors build a summer home across the lake, a young woman and her 3-year-old son, Paul. Linda begins to babysit for the affluent neighbors, prematurely slinking into the husk of another life like sinking into a warm bath. Of course, the perfect-seeming family is anything but. Linda muses in one of her frequent time leaps that this story is her attempt to explain human evil.
Growing up “odd” or “different” is not unfamiliar territory for a coming-of-age novel, but Linda is a very special kind of narrator; she can tell us her story, she can reveal her nuanced motivations, we can experience the time-jumping memory-wash that takes us through the awkward high school moments, the desperate shuffle to feel connected to her mother, the charming yet utterly misguided obsession with her neighbors and their perfect nuclear world; we can experience the crushing blow of totally preventable loss, but we still never get to know Linda.
Linda is still a white sheet tacked up on the wall by good intentions. History of Wolves is a constellation of lonely people motivated by their need to live their lives the way they imagine it best, either through the acceptance of their darker urges, through religion, through a blind dedication to the way things “have always been.” The projector plays on Linda, but when the film turns off, she’s still just a blank white sheet.
I think the only part of this novel that will really stick with me is Linda’s relationship with her father. It’s so poignant, trusting but turbulent, a boat lashed to shore on unsteady waters. You imagine both of them reaching out to each other to the best of their abilities, but never knowing exactly how to cross the divide. So much is said in their silences.
“I could still climb into my father’s lap in my cotton nightgown and pretend I was smaller, a little girl he could hold and protect–or better yet, a piece of equipment he could use, a wonderful worn tool that needed tending, like the tape measure he returned with such care to his leather belt.”