I spent two winters in Michigan. It was cold; I felt it all the more coming straight from the tropical heat of Mumbai. All my previous experiences of snow were those of tourists: artificial, designed to thrill and time-bound. Michigan was my first experience of a snow-bound way of living. I know many who really enjoyed their snowy winters in Michigan; I am not one of them. And that even after my Michigan winter experience was tempered by the efficient administration of the University at Ann Arbor. It was nowhere close to winters described by Emily Fridlund in History of Wolves, her debut novel. Set in the Aspen covered wilderness around the Minnesota lakes, Fridlund’s description of the winters is the novel’s best feature. She brilliantly manages to evoke the winters – the sense of the falling and accumulating snow, the solidity of the frozen lake, the watering of the eyes against the howling winds. And then, when the winters pass, she magically creates a picture of the thawing snow, the crunch of boots hurrying on the twig covered forest floor, the change in the rhythm of life as the day lengthens.
Unfortunately, the beautiful scene-setting is not complimented by either the plot or the characters. The novel could be described as the story of the coming-of-age of Linda, a teenage girl brought up in a disintegrating commune in a remote part of Minnesota. Linda gets drawn to a young family – a couple and their 4 year old son, that has recently arrived in the area. The plot or a little bit that can be described as a plot revolves around their interaction and the death of the son. The author does build up some suspense around the death – which we know early on, is coming – but it gets a bit repetitive. There are sub plots in the form of Linda’s family and a rather bizarre one around her teacher and a classmate. Maybe, its me; I simply did not appreciate whole sections of the novel. The language is simple enough – I just did not understand how or why those sections were included.
While I was in the US, we had taken a weekend trip to Lake Placid in upstate New York in the middle of the winter. It was bitterly cold and Lake Placid seemed to me a small close knit community, insulated from the rest of the world. We watched a Dancing on Ice style show in Lake Placid and I remember how the whole town turned up for the show; the dancers seemed to be local heroes. They were sons and daughters of the town and everybody watching with us seemed to know them personally. I recall speaking to P about how isolated that community seemed and that I can’t imagine ever living in a place like this. History of Wolves is set in an even more remote location. Apart from bringing back memories of that trip to Lake Placid, it did not do anything for me.