“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.
My final book from the 2017 Booker longlist and one which recently made the shortlist (which feels a tad generous given books like Reservoir 13 and Solar Bones didn’t make the cut), Emily Fridlund’s debut novel The History of Wolves is narrated by Mattie, now 37 but mainly describing events that took place when she was 14, turning 15.
Mattie (as her new history teacher Mr. Grierson calls her) lives in a remote house on the shores of a lake in the Northern part of Minnesota with her parents, the last three remaining members of a commune. Although:
I never even knew if they were my real parents, or if they were simply the people who stayed around after everyone else went back to college or office jobs in the Twin Cities.
Mr. Grierson asks her to enter a history competition on behalf of the school. She chooses to make a presentation on the history of wolves, an animal to which she clearly feels a strong affinity.
One of the judges poked his pencil in the air. “But — I have to intervene here. There’s something you haven’t explained very well. What do wolves have to do with human history?”
It was then that I saw Mr Grierson by the door. He has his jacket in his arms like he’d just come in, and I watched as he caught the eye of the judge and shrugged. It was the subtlest shift of his shoulders, as if to say, What can you do with kids? What can yo do with these teenage girls? I took a deep breath and glared at both of them. “Wolves have nothing at all to do with humans, actually. If they can help it, they avoid them.”
They gave me the Originality Prize.
On the far side of the lake, albeit still the nearest house to her home, a new family move in, (Cleo)Patra, aged 26, her husband Leo, aged 37, and their son Paul, 4. As Leo spends a lot of time away from home, Mattie befriends Patra and babysits Paul. The 11-year age gap between each of the characters is remarked on by Mattie and is an effective authorial choice which, for example, allows Mattie to interact at times as a sort of peer with both Paul and Patra, while equally having some distance from both.
We learn in the second page of the book that Paul dies, and even from early on there are signs he is not well, but signs Mattie ultimately learns to rationalize away:
At the trial they kept asking, when did you know for sure there was something wrong? And the answer probably was: right away. But that feeling faded as I got to know him. Paul’s breathy way of talking, the way he had to sit down when he got excited — these tendencies seemed to me, more and more, just the way he was. Paul was fussy and fragile, then whooping and manic. I got used to his moods. Though he was always getting mistaken for someone older, he was four the spring I knew him. He had droopy eyelids, big red hands. He had four-going-on-five-year-old plans: visit Mars, get shoes with ties.
This rationalization is encouraged by Leo and Patra, Christian Scientists, Leo in particular having the firm belief that medical intervention is unnecessary even as Paul’s illness becomes more apparent, a situation that ultimately brings them, with Mattie, as a key witness, to court on manslaughter charges.
Surely, they said to me later, surely by then you sensed something was off?
Maybe. Maybe there is a way to climb above everything, some special ladder or insight, some optical vantage point that allows a clear, unobstructed view of things. Maybe this way of seeing comes naturally to some people, and good for them if it does. But I remember it all, even now, as if two mutually exclusive things happened. First it goes the way the prosecutors described it – nausea, headache, coma, etcetera — and then it comes back to me the way it actually was with Patra and Paul — tall ships, car ride home, Good King Wenceslas, bed.
Though they end the same way, they are not the same story. Maybe if I’d been someone else I’d see it differently. But isn’t that the crux of the problem? Wouldn’t we all act differently if we were someone else?
Although in a pivotal scene, when she is confronted by a hostile Patra during a recess in the court proceedings, she believes Patra is angry because Mattie failed to seek help and medical intervention, only to find she actually blames her for a lack of faith:
Leo told me, control your thoughts, but it was your mind — She said it like she could barely get the words out. Your mind. That was too small. To see beyond itself.” She drew a ragged breath. “Yours. You saw him. As sick.“
In a parallel story, both in time and thematically, Mattie notices that Mr. Grierson is attracted to Lily, a beautiful girl in their class, and when Grierson drives her home Mattie attempts to kiss him herself, although Grierson ignores her advances.
I thought if I slammed the [car] door hard enough, Mr. Grierson might come after me. That’s what it’s like to be fourteen. I thought if I took a few running steps off the road into the snow that maybe he’d follow me — to assuage his guilt, to make sure I got home all right, to push his chalky history hands under my jacket, whatever.
But Grierson turns out to have a murky past, and is jailed as a child sex-offender, based in part on fabricated accusations by Lily, accusations he denies, but he equally admits that, in his fantasies, he wanted to do much worse. After he is released from prison, Mattie, in later life, tracks Grierson as he moves around the country, hounded wherever he lives given his public past, and writes to him in sympathy, a sympathy he partially questions:
Other types of people, and I’m not saying you’re this, necessarily, but I’m just putting it out there, will defend people like me on principle because when their turn comes, they want that so badly for themselves.
And Mattie herself, looking back later on the events, and guilty as to both her lack of intervention in Paul’s situation, draws the key parallels between their positions:
What’s the difference between what you want to believe and what you do?
And what’s the difference between what you think and what you end up doing?
The History of Wolves is far from a perfect novel. The writing tries a little too hard (e.g., to insert a wolves theme at different places). And while it makes sense to have an older Mattie reflect on the events in the second half of the novel, the insertion of a story line set years later (her relationship with her “mother” and, particularly, a boyfriend) seems unnecessary and even rather confusing. Rather like Fiona Mozley’s also shortlisted Elmet, this feels like a debut novel from a writer early in her career, and one suspects it is unlikely a different jury would have longlisted the book.
That said, this is one of the more thought provoking books on the Booker longlist, as can be seen from the discussion on the Mookse and Gripes Booker forum (here), which progressed beyond the merits of the book to different interpretations, and actually compliments well what is at times a rather dull list.