Madeline Furston, first-person narrator of Emily Fridlund's debut novel, "History of Wolves," is hard to know. She's called Linda at her middle school, but also Commie or Freak. She's an only child, wears hand-me-downs from neighbors and lives in a cabin whose electricity comes from a generator, her family the last inhabitants of a long-abandoned commune at the top of a steep, dark hill in the fictional town of Loose River in Northern Minnesota. At 14, Linda is both lonely and a keen observer of her natural world. "Winter collapsed on us that year. It knelt down, exhausted, and stayed." Linda watches teachers and her fellow students too, but without understanding the motivations that fuel their actions or sometimes her own.
She is drawn to Mr. Grierson, a substitute history teacher, who himself pays a lot of attention to the cheerleaders and especially Lily Holburn, she of the sleek black hair and sheer sweaters. Linda observes how Lily's nascent sexuality affects Mr. Grierson, but it stirs something in her too. "Without saying a word, Lily could make people feel encouraged, blessed. She had dimples on her cheeks, nipples that flashed like signs from God through her sweater. I was flat chested, plain as a banister. I made people feel judged." So when Linda impulsively kisses Mr. Grierson in his car after her presentation on wolves at a local history competition, the reader both can empathize with her jealous competitiveness with Lily and fear the consequences. When Grierson is later discovered to be a pedophile on the run from a school in California, and Lily accuses him of molestation, the reader's suspicions are confirmed even if Linda feels deceived: "I felt … that he'd lied to me, profoundly, by ignoring what I did to him in his car, pretending to be better than he was."
With her overflowing cauldron of contradictions — sexually curious and naïve, an outsider taunted by her classmates who longs to become something other than herself — Linda seems as much prey as predator, akin to the wolves she studies. When a family moves into their new house across the lake the winter Linda is 15, she knows them, having spied on the parents the previous summer with their young child "like attendants to a very small bride, doting, hovering." Linda scorns then pities them for their folly, their inept navigation of a universe of snow. But later that winter, after the father mysteriously disappears, Linda encounters and befriends Patra Gardner, the young mother only 11 years older than Linda, and her son, Paul.
From the book's opening scene, the reader knows Paul's importance to Linda, who often experiences the boy through physical contact, the casual, overwhelming intimacy of a yawning 4-year-old leaning against her chest. But is it more than that? The author's deft use of foreshadowing hints at some impending tragedy over the horizon as Linda becomes Paul's babysitter, or as Patra declares one day, "governess." The very term evokes repressed feelings and dark mysteries, associations with Gothic romances like Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" or Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw," which Patra and many readers will know but Linda does not.
Like the governesses in those stories, Linda is both a part of the family but separate from it. From this vantage point, Linda begins to crave an intoxicating kind of intimacy with the Gardners quite unlike her own family, one in which Linda is more the adult in the room than her mother — who's always surprised when the evening's darkness descends on her quilting, or her father, a taciturn man whose major connection to the world seems to be through things, not people.
But the Gardners aren't picture perfect either, and the tension between what Linda hopes to have with them and the facts as they emerge is expertly handled by Fridlund, who builds a palpable sense of dread through flashbacks and foreshadowing, all at 11-year intervals, not coincidentally the gap in years between Paul, Linda, Patra and husband Leo. While the novel is anchored in the voice of the nature-obsessed Linda at 15, exploring the woods with Paul or trying to understand Lily Holburn's magnetic appeal and her treachery, the reader gets glimpses in the second half of Linda at 26, living in Duluth with a boyfriend and a growing sense of regret. At another point in the novel she's 4, plotting with another child to break away from the commune's physical boundaries, and later still, at 37, she's trying to make sense of what happened to Paul and her complicity in sealing his fate.
In the process, Fridlund makes a wolfish detective of the reader, devouring pages for the meaning in a child's fruity breath, Linda's later contact with Mr. Grierson, her fascination with Lily Holburn, her instinct to protect her happy family with Patra and Paul, especially when Leo Gardner re-joins the family in the spring. An astronomer who's been away in Hawaii writing a book, Leo's return imposes his mental superiority, his opinions and his faith on Linda and his family, including his insistence that his child is fine, a "perfect child of God," which has disastrous consequences that reverberate throughout the novel.
Regardless of one's judgment about the characters' mistakes and shortcomings, the chilly power of "History of Wolves" packs a wallop that's hard to shake off. In the process, Fridlund — who received a Ph.D. in creative writing from USC — has constructed an elegant, troubling debut, both immersed in the natural world but equally concerned with issues of power, family, faith and the gap between understanding something and being able to act on the knowledge.
Paula L. Woods, author of four novels and several anthologies, is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
By Emily Fridlund