Growing up in the northern woods is a lonely experience. Winter is so long, much longer than it should be, that it teaches you to hunker down, to hold your arms tight across your chest, to grit your teeth and squint your eyes until it’s over.
“It was the worst part of winter, a waste of white in every direction, no place for little kids or city people. Beneath a foot of ice, beneath my boots, the walleye drifted. They did not try to swim, or do anything that required effort. They hovered, waiting winter out with driftwood, barely beating their hearts.”
In Emily Fridlund’s debut novel “History of Wolves,” Madeline, who goes by Linda, is a wise and lonely 14-year-old living in an abandoned commune in northern Minnesota with her parents, or “simply the people who stayed around after everyone else went back to college or office jobs in the Twin Cities.” The result of this atypical upbringing is that Linda is wise beyond her years, though her practicality exasperates her mother who wishes Linda would just “cavort and pretend.”
But it’s not in Linda’s nature to pretend to be happy. Not when she’s scraping money together to buy food and walking home from school through the snow and dark woods to a house with no heat. Happiness is pointless, until a young family moves into a house on the lake within view of Linda’s cabin.
Petra Gardner has relocated from the city to the lake house with her 4-year-old son Paul, while her husband Leo, an astronomer, works overseas. Petra is young and naive and enlists Linda as Paul’s babysitter “to teach them about the woods,” and soon Linda is spending all her time at the house on the lake. Immersing herself in the lives of Petra and Paul, she is happy — “I barely recognized the feeling,” she says — until Leo returns.
Dr. Leonard Gardner is a third-generation Christian Scientist who believes “there is no place in the universe for evil, for sickness, for sadness, for death.” His presence is unsettling and alters the dynamic of the house, driving a wedge between the women. Linda watches, resentfully, as Petra becomes passive and deferential around her husband.
The book is divided into two parts: “Science” and “Health,” which is also the title of a book written in 1875 by Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, who argued that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone. Fridlund steers us away from critique of Christian Scientists, letting Leo’s actions speak for themselves.
This review was originally published in the Post and Courier.