Soho Press, 2013
352 pp., 25.00
If you like bachelor farmers, Lutheran churches, and Minnesota towns that time forgot, but you find Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon too relentlessly cheerful, you might want to read Thomas Maltman's Little Wolves. This is the second novel for Maltman, who teaches English at Normandale Community College just south of Minneapolis. His award-winning first novel, The Night Birds (Soho Press, 2007), re-creates the fears and sorrows not only of a Minnesota pioneer family but also of the Native American clan who fought them during the Dakota War of 1862. There are bad guys in both camps, and even the sympathetic characters see and do appalling things. Yet Maltman keeps hope alive—barely—by filtering the story through two likable teenagers: a girl who experiences both sides of the conflict, and, years later, a boy who listens to her account of that terrible year.
Little Wolves is much darker than Night Birds. Most of its teenagers are far from likable. Evil—human, natural, and perhaps supernatural—underlies the story. There is a smidgeon of redemption at the very end: at least one of the main characters thinks he has reclaimed one boy from hell. But hell is so pervasive up to that point that it's easy to suspect it's still lying in wait, ready to pounce.
Both of Maltman's novels, literary fiction that they are, begin in a fictive present—1876 in Night Birds, the late 1980s in Little Wolves—and then work forward and backward until, toward the end of the story, the reader can put the pieces together and understand, more or less, what was going on all along. The day before the beginning of Little Wolves, Clara Warren, "six months pregnant, a pastor's wife, [an English teacher,] a stranger living in a small town," ignored her insistently ringing doorbell. Something terrible followed shortly thereafter. We know this because Clara cannot bear to go to church, and because late the previous night three coyotes entered the graveyard "like a storybook curse," one of them howling "in a language that was part of the great outer darkness."
In the next chapter we learn that Seth Fallon, one of Clara's students, has shot and killed the sheriff. Enter Seth's father, Grizz, a farmer, a loner, and a longtime single parent. For some reason Grizz and Steve, the semiretired former sheriff, don't get along. For some reason Grizz's farm has a bloody history; it might even be under a curse. For some reason Clara's husband, Logan, thinks he saw the devil in his congregation.
As multiple story lines unfold, we learn why Seth shot the sheriff, why Grizz and Steve don't get along, and why Grizz thinks his farm is cursed. New questions arise and are eventually answered: why Clara and Logan moved to Lone Mountain, what really happened to Clara's mother, what kind of man was Sheriff Will Gunderson, why Clara keeps seeing people who aren't there.
We can only guess why Logan thinks he saw the devil, however, or why Maltman keeps talking about wolves. Mostly not real wolves, though they figure in the legends Clara's father told her when she was little. Coyotes, rather, and a werewolf (that he calls by its French name, loupgarou), and medieval literary wolves, and the disease lupus (which in Latin means wolf), and sometimes just people: "Were there coyotes back then [when my mother died]? Some kind of wild dogs or wolves?" Clara asks Griff. "Wolves?" Grizz says. "If there were any wolves, they came in human form."
If blurbs on the book jacket and Amazon's website are to be believed, Little Wolves is "brilliant," "a masterwork," "a work of high art." Weaving together elements from mythology, mystery, suspense, Christian fiction, and the down-home save-the-farm novel, it is certainly ambitious. Perhaps with skillful editing it could have been great. Unfortunately, a collection of minor to jarring flaws hold it back. Maltman is biblically literate, and he should have paid attention to scriptural canines: it's the little foxes that spoil the vines (Song of Songs 2:15).
Inaccuracies, for example: "Logan loved the story of Martin Luther battling the devil in his last days, flinging a book across the room and reminding Lucifer of his baptism." Perhaps there is a story like this, but the famous (though apparently apocryphal) one is about Luther in his thirties (not in his last days) flinging an inkpot (not a book). Another example: "Reagan's secretary of agriculture … said earlier that day in his press conference that farmers should 'Get big or get out.' " Actually it was Nixon and Ford's secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, who made that statement a decade earlier. And why does Maltman say on page 14 that "Grizz had known Steve since they were boys," but on page 204 that Steve has "daughters Grizz's own age"?
Those are minor flaws, easily fixed by alert editors though frustrating for readers. More troubling is the way Maltman handles genre (gothic horror with literary references? thriller crossed with introspective character portrayal?), viewpoint (sudden bizarre shifts within sections), and dénouement (let's wrap this up quickly, and maybe the ending should be happier than everything that's come before). Scenes sometimes fly in apparently from nowhere and just as quickly return: Clara's break-up with her first fiancé, for example, and some of the legends that a father really should not be telling a small girl. Too often Maltman breaks stride to explain something that either is already obvious or that doesn't need to be part of the story at all.
Notwithstanding, a lot of readers have fallen in love with Little Wolves, and there is much to love about it. It's a page-turner. The more you read, the more you want to know about what happened to Clara's and Grizz's families many years ago, and how those dark events relate to the central tragedy of the book. Frequent appearances of sepulchral beings—ghosts, specters, even a mud giant—focus one's attention.
Its central characters are oddly lovable. To all appearances, Clara and Grizz couldn't be more different: Clara, a newlywed, a literary scholar, and a pastor's wife; Grizz, a middle-aged widowed farmer who has lost his childhood faith. But, it turns out, the two have a lot in common. Both are outliers in their communities: Clara, surrounded by staunch rural Lutherans, doubts her husband's faith and finds solace in ancient legends. Grizz, surrounded by factory farmers, has a personal relationship with his cows and his land. Both have suffered loss: Clara of her mother, Grizz of his son. Before the book ends, both are in danger of their lives.
What's more, Maltman's descriptions can be breathtakingly beautiful. Take this, for example:
Clara shut her eyes, imagining running free … across the countryside, across miles and miles. Shedding her human skin. The fur and wildness underneath. She was as sleek as silence, a she-wolf whose hearing took in what was happening from far away. She heard the skeletons of abandoned barns caving in the wind, the brittle creak of empty grain bins, the lisping of the corn leaves in a dry time before the harvest. She heard the voices Logan carried home with him, the talk inside the houses after sundown. The folk were afraid. They were afraid and didn't know how to live in a world that was changing all around them.
Another plus: Little Wolves has a theological depth that most contemporary novels lack. Maltman knows Scripture. He knows Lutherans. He knows what terrifies people of faith; how it feels to be sinful without hope of forgiveness and redemption. He knows that evil is real. And even though this is not a Christian™ book per se (that is, one published for the evangelical market), Pastor Logan preaches the gospel to Grizz: "It's said that nothing can separate us from the love of God, no power or principality. I believe in your son's baptism. I believe that God loved your son. And I know that God loves you."
Perhaps the main reason dedicated readers are recommending Little Wolves, however, is that so much of it is about stories and the words that bring them to life. Grizz works out remorse by making statues of characters from Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha. The children of Lone Mountain frighten each other with tales about the woman in the woods. Clara, whose father filled her young head with stories about wolves and lost mothers, hopes to find salvation—sanity, even—through writing. She knows the power of words. Alarmed by night noises,
Clara gathered up her courage and climbed out of bed. Moonlight illuminated her room, scattered with cardboard boxes, the lids peeled open. From one she hefted out her Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, which she figured a suitable weapon for doing battle with ghosts trying to take up residence under the stairwell. She held the substantial bulk of the alphabet in her hands, a word for every reality. Madness was for when words failed.
Words rarely fail Thomas Maltman. If Little Wolves doesn't quite meet the standard he set with The Night Birds, it's still a haunting story that you're unlikely to leave half read.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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