Spoiler alert: contains plot details
I read History of Wolves immediately after reading Emma Cline’s The Girls (2016), and in some ways it’s a weirdly apt follow-up. Both are first novels by prodigiously talented young women writers.
Both are first person narratives told by damaged adult women recalling their young teen selves. In both cases the young teen selves are friendless and neglected, in Cline’s case living with material privilege, in Fridlund’s with privation. Both girls are desperate to be seen and to belong, and both form crushes on young women. Both stories centre on cults, and the consequences of cult beliefs, especially as promoted by male leader figures. Both discuss grooming and sexual exploitation (Fridlund in unpredictable ways). Both novels culminate in the death of innocents.
The strapline for History of Wolves is ‘How far would you go to belong?’, which could equally market The Girls.
But where The Girls is based on a notorious real-life crime (the Tate murders by Charles Manson’s followers), Fridlund’s novel is less sensational, much more subtle.
Emma Cline has said her central interest in writing The Girls was to explore the dynamics of relationships between adolescent girls; mapping that onto the lurid background of cults and massacre was a writing challenge she set herself.
Fridlund sets her story in a more mundane environment, where boredom and loneliness are the bogeymen her central character most fears.
Madeline – known as Linda, called ‘Freak’ or ‘Commie’ by her school peers, sometimes called Mattie, or Jane, or Janet – lives on a lake in frozen northern Minnesota, on a rural lot of woodland that formerly housed a commune. The commune disintegrated when she was about 7, leaving just her and her parents, who she speculates might not even be her actual parents, given children in the commune were raised in common.
Linda doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t know who named her or why. She does not feel wanted or valued. She does not feel nurtured by her critical mother or her mostly silent father. She is underfed and overladen with survival tasks.
Linda is a wolf, without a pack.
Linda so desperately wants to be seen and wanted that she tries to seduce a pedophile – and fails. Instead, the pedophile fixates on beautiful Lily, who makes “people feel encouraged, blessed”. Linda makes people feel judged.
On the back of this rejection, Linda targets a young mother who, with her infant son and husband, has recently moved into a house across a narrow neck of lake. She has more success here: Patra (also known as Cleo or Patty, Patty Pea or Patty Cakes) is also lonely, with her scientist husband Leo frequently away, and Patra wants help with her four year old, Paul.
More pertinently, as the astute Linda observes, “Didn’t she always need someone to watch her and approve? And wasn’t I better at that than anyone?”
Linda is a watcher. She’s a stalker. She watches the pedophile and Lily. She stalks them. She watches Patra and her family across the lake through their house’s large windows. At various points she spies on Patra and Leo having oral sex, she slips into their darkened house when she thinks they’re out, she cyberstalks Patra, the pedophile and Lily in later life. She sends letters about intimate matters that should not be her concern and leaves anonymous gifts. She appropriates belongings. Her boundaries are porous.
Arguably Linda is a kind of ghost, a silent sinister being without substance. Fridlund references gothic horror: Jane Eyre, “the governess”, and that other governess, in Henry James’ classic horror story, The Turn of The Screw. In The Turn of The Screw, the governess, who might be sane but might be psychologically unhinged, believes her child charges are at risk from a pair of malevolent ghosts.
Or is it Leo and Patra who are types of ‘ghost’? It emerges their religious beliefs preclude matter, insist there is only spirit. Are they a couple who present a risk to the child in Linda’s care?
Linda is so focused on watching Patra, so obsessive seeking to secure Patra’s attentions, that she fails in her role as babysitter, or “governess”, to Paul. The fact is, Paul is sick. Linda knew that on some level from the outset. But she fails to comprehend why Paul’s parents, who dote on him, don’t recognise Paul is ill and do not seek medical care.
Linda’s parents neglect her materially and emotionally. Paul’s parents see their son as a pure expression of God, as perfect, but their religious beliefs preclude any acknowledgement that his physical being might suffer.
Leo and Patra are adherents of Christian Science, and follow the tenets of its founder, Mary Baker Eddy:
“Become conscious for a single moment that Life and intelligence are purely spiritual, – neither in nor of matter, – and the body will then utter no complaints.”
Leo and Patra believe that mind determines all. If we think we are well, we will be well. If we think we are happy, we are happy. The only vulnerability is a negative mindset.
The key questions for Linda are
“What’s the difference between what you want to believe and what you do? That’s the question I should have asked Patra”
“And what’s the difference between what you think and what you end up doing? That’s the question I should have asked [the pedophile]”.
Linda wrestles with whether there’s a distinction between thought and act. If we think something, is that thought ‘real’, even if we do not enact it? Is it our truth? The pedophile ultimately thinks so: he accepts he is guilty, if not of the act, then of the thought.
So if Linda had the thought that without Leo and Paul, Patra would be hers, is she guilty, should Patra lose Paul and Leo? Is the illness of a child in this narrative in fact a McGuffin, a massive red herring? Is adult Linda sad, empty and angry not because she feels culpable about Paul but because she lost Patra?
It’s easy, and obvious, to read History of Wolves as a moral fable about child neglect. But I think it might be more complex. Emily Fridlund doesn’t conclude her tale after the court case. Instead, she concludes with a sexually charged sequence where Linda, a girl who (observed by a child) looks like a boy, imagines herself sexually assaulting Lily, almost as if she inhabits the psyche of the pedophile; and in imagining herself as the agent, imagines herself as the subject:
The violence in me is almost overwhelming. “That’s what you wanted, right? Just a kiss.”
And then there’s this. Even now, when those words move through my mind, like a curse or a wish, I become Lily […] I find I’m the one stranded in the boat, I’m the one shivering with cold, I feel everything and I’m the one wanted more than anything else.”
Underfed Lily is hungry, hungry like the wolf. Hungry like a pedophile driven by compulsion. Hungry to be “the one wanted more than anything else”.
This is not a tragedy about a young boy who dies. This is a horror story of a young girl werewolf who, in her desire to be “wanted more than anything else”, appropriates the objects of her desire and allows a young boy to die.