Self-Loathing on the Lake: History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Originally posted February 2017

Coming of age stories are always such a risk. After all, at one point or another, everyone grows up.

Just as with the lead in Emily Fridlund’s “History of Wolves,” every reader is going to have a present or past to check this tale against. Is the author’s protagonist, Madeline/Linda, a realistic interpretation of a North Woods hippie teen? Are her struggles something with which once teen-angst-ridden readers can relate?

It’s a story that’s far different — not better or worse, just different — from any Judy Blume book you’ve ever read. In “History of Wolves,” we follow Madeline/Linda as she recalls the winter, spring and summer of a single year, when she was 15. Living on the land that once was home to a commune, on a remote lake in Minnesota, it’s not exactly glamorous. Her parents, if they really are her parents, are fairly non-existent. And aside from an odd preoccupation with a fellow classmate, Mattie does not have friends. What she does have is the lake itself, her forest and her dogs.

And then Paul and Patra show up.

I suppose there is some symmetry in Madeline referring to herself as Linda and Cleopatra calling herself Patra — and Linda takes some comfort in the symmetry of the number 11. 11 years between Linda and Patra’s son Paul, 11 years between Linda and Patra, and 11 years between Patra and her absentee husband Leo. It’s been roughly 11 years, I believe, since Linda’s commune family life disintegrated — her earliest memories being of around the time she was four and her sister/friend Tameka — but as the relationship between Linda, Patra and Paul unfolds, it becomes clear Linda craves normalcy. She’s never quite let in all the way, but it could be a defense mechanism on Patra’s part. And, well … Linda doesn’t exactly believe she’s ever going to be happy, so why risk that kind of vulnerability?

And then there’s Linda and Lily and Mr. Grierson, a middle school teacher with a penchant for the wrong kind of pictures. So odd, this relationship. Even as an adult, it feels as if emotional connections are just out of touch, as Linda continues to reach out to the wrong people as she shuts out an opportunity for a personal sense of peace.

There’s deceit on all sides of Linda’s story. With Paul, it was the damage an adult can inflict on a child. And with Lily, it’s the damage a child can inflict on an adult. And with Linda, it’s the damage she inflicts on herself. I’m not sure if it’s penance Linda is paying, but Fridlund’s construct is immersive and sad and tragic and wistful.

But seriously, I need to know what the heck with Lily. Someone get back to me on that. The boots? The dad? I’m still scratching my head.

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