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Review: History of Wolves (2017) by Emily Fridlund

History_of_Wolves

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?

Wolves

Linda watches.

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

“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.

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Author Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves


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Review: The Girls (2016) by Emma Cline

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Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten – Charles Manson’s “Girls”

Emma Cline’s The Girls is a serious novel, and seriously disturbing.

It’s a fictionalized reimagining of the Charles Manson “family” and the notorious murders perpetrated by Manson’s “girls” at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles in 1969.

Due to the salacious subject matter, and Emma Cline’s marketability, there was a bidding war for publishing rights in response to the book proposal. The project could have turned out grossly exploitative, but one of the attributes that makes Emma Cline marketable is her egregious talent: her novel is a stunning debut.

The Girls is a narrative told in the first person by Evie Boyd, within two timeframes: Evie aged about 61, and Evie aged 14, in 1969. Speaking as a 56 year old, I must immediately credit Cline with making an audacious choice, given the author was a mere 25 when The Girls was published. Her choice to inhabit the voice of a woman in her 60s is audacious but successful (though her mature Evie is outstandingly reflective – living through six decades doesn’t always result in this degree of insight).

Evie at 14 is painfully vivid. Cline is concerned with the vulnerabilities of adolescent girls: the ways the intense desire to belong, to be accepted within a friendship group or community, exposes them and makes them pliable, open to sexual exploitation and grooming. She’s concerned with formative adolescent sexual experiences and developing sexuality. She’s particularly concerned with the passionate feelings adolescent girls sometimes develop for each other and with older girls. Her Evie embodies all this.

Evie as a young girl is also a walking illustration of how we choose not to see, especially as adolescents, but also, for most of us, as we age. We choose not to recognize the obvious, if the obvious thwarts our illusions. We choose cognitive dissonance. We tell ourselves lies to make it all alright.

Evie is a privileged young girl from a wealthy, albeit troubled, background. She’s a socially isolated poor little rich girl. When she first sees “the girls”, gypsies, hippies, ‘free spirits’, she is immediately infatuated. When they take her to the hippy encampment on a ranch outside of San Francisco, she is seduced, literally and metaphorically, and wants nothing more than to join the girls as acolytes of Russell Hadrick, the cult leader Cline bases on Charles Manson.

Evie can see the hippy commune is dirty, disordered, dysfunctional, the small children underfoot feral and neglected, the adults semi-starved, drug addled inadequates. She can see they survive on petty criminality. But Evie is enamoured by the girls, most particularly Russell’s number one girl, Suzanne (who might be partly based on Manson disciple Susan Atkins), and all that is ugly is wreathed in the glamour of her feelings for Suzanne and her desire to be seen, accepted, and loved.

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Susan Atkins

Evie gives herself sexually. She robs her mother. She joins in burglary forays, invading the homes of her own neighbours. She lies, cheats and steals for Suzanne, the girls and Russell. The question looms: would she kill?

To this point, the story could be a gothic allegory for more usual adolescent rites of passage – the crushes, the fervent group identifications, the sleazy manipulations of young girls by older men. But this story is based on the murders instigated by Charles Manson, so inevitably the narrative must engage with the much more extreme issues around killing fellow human beings.

If Cline simply retold the Manson story, fictionalizing names, attributing motivations and feelings, I think this project would be inexcusable. But she doesn’t do that. Instead, while allowing the narrative enough closeness to the Manson killings to acknowledge the real life scaffolding, she deliberately distances the story, geographically and in other ways, both to ensure the reader is pointed to the themes she most wishes to explore and, I believe, out of respect for Manson’s real life victims.

It would be unthinkable to recount in forensic terms precisely the ways the real life victims were slaughtered. That is not an entertainment. So instead of Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Steve Parent, the victims in The Girls are named as Linda, Christopher, Gwen, and Scotty, and the ways they meet their deaths are comparable to, but not identical to, the ways Sharon, Abigail, Jay, Wojciech and Steven were killed. The killers are not named as Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian; Leslie Van Houten and Bobby Beausoleil are not named. Instead, the characters are Susan, Donna, Helen, Guy and Roos.

The LaBianca murders, perpetrated by Manson, Tex Watson and Manson’s girls the following night, are not mentioned. The Gary Hinman murder is only alluded to, without using names. The murders of James Willett and Don ‘Shorty’ Shea and the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford are outside the scope of Evie’s story.

The fictional Evie Boyd owes her material comforts to the fortune built by her grandmother, a movie star. Emma Cline is the grand-daughter of the man who invented the Jacuzzi. There was at least one pubescent girl with movie star connections embroiled in the Manson cult [I have amended this blog’s original wording, which specified an individual, almost certainly confusing that individual with a different child of Hollywood, for which I sincerely apologise]. Emma Cline was a pubescent actress whose experiences in Los Angeles as a teen on the fringes of the entertainment world and later attempting to transition to a young adult actress were so demeaning she tossed it in and instead undertook a Masters of Fine Arts (Writing) at Columbia University in New York.

At Columbia, Emma Cline as a writing talent is remembered by one faculty member as “head and shoulders above everyone else”, which is born out by The Girls. She quickly progressed to writing for Salon, O Magazine and The New Yorker, with fiction in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House and Paris Review, before she was signed to a three-book fiction deal by Random House, for a rumoured $2 million.

The Girls, published in 2016, was shortlisted for the John Leonard Award from the National Book Critics Circle and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. The following year Cline was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists.

Her short stories to date tend to engage with similar themes to those explored in The Girls – how young girls navigate that potentially dangerous passage to adult sexuality. Emma Cline is on record saying she constantly wonders how she survived her teen years without crippling damage. The Girls asks, did Evie?

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Emma Cline