Review of “My Wolf, My Friend”

From my Goodreads review

The first thing I want to say is that this book is absolutely a product of its time. Published in ’69, the age of this books shows in a variety of subtle ways, but most noticeably it shows in its treatment of gender, i.e. casually relegating the main character to kitchen duty because “cooking is a woman’s work” and the casual dismissal of the cruelty of one male character, especially when he abandon’s his little sister’s birthday party, because “it’s not a man’s thing” to stay a celebrate a birthday with his little sibling I guess? Once these things are set aside, however, the other ways in which the story shows its age are less intrusive and not especially irksome at all.

There are not a whole lot of coming-of-age stories for girls that don’t center around finding a romantic partner. This is one story I would argue that, despite it’s datedness with regards to gender, manages to not fall into this trap in the slightest. Our main character’s struggle focuses instead on having her life entirely uprooted following the death of her mother. Upon moving from California to Montana with her father, she begins to understand more fully that her father is a stranger to her — someone she has never connected to, the pain of which may not be deeply explored but is at least acknowledged and given a cursory examination. The pain of losing her mother, who she had a deeper connection to, is given the same cursory treatment, but despite the passing ways in which these issues are dealt with, it manages to not feel in the least dismissive.

Exploration of Hallie’s mourning over the loss both of her mother and the life she knew is rather explored through her evolving relationship with the landscape and her relative isolation. The isolation especially is highlighted through her relationship to Sasha, the titular wolf she raises after having found it orphaned in the woods. Despite the title and the back-cover description of the novel, Hallie’s relationship with the wolf isn’t the primary conflict of the story, nor does it even take center stage. Rather, it is one of many layers of Hallie’s journey through her coming-of-age story, and ultimately is deeply connected to the idea of loss, mourning, and letting go. Of course the wolf does play a pivotal role in the climax of the novel, but even this seems largely thematic — perhaps even allegorical — with relation to the idea of loss and a willingness to let go which is central to the idea of coming of age, both in this story and in others.

While the emotional stakes of the story are certainly conveyed, for a modern/adult reader, those emotions are not evocatively portrayed. During the climax of the novel I was certainly shocked (despite having read this as a child, I recalled nothing about it) but not emotionally invested enough to really feel anything for the character or her ordeal. One issue that I initially took with the book was the treatment of an indigenous character named Black Thunder, who isn’t developed much beyond the idea that he is 1) native 2) kind and 3) helpful. We know literally nothing about this indigenous character and for a while I thought this was problematic but in reflecting upon the relatively shallow treatment of the emotions of the story, the events depicted, and several other characters as well, I now wonder if it isn’t more a side effect of the way in which the story is written.

Despite what I called “shallow treatment” of various aspects of the story, I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily bad in this way. I do wish there was a 2.5 stars rating option because I didn’t really want to give it a full three stars, but I also didn’t want to round down to two stars as I feel that’s not really fair to the book. It is enjoyable, it’s quickly paced, and an easy read — perfect for a YA audience, and as I said, I deeply appreciate a coming-of-age story for girls that isn’t centered around romantic love. Additionally, it is a wonderful story for young readers who are interested in wildlife, ecology, and conservation. Because the story doesn’t delve too deep into the relationship with the wolf, it doesn’t even really present the issue of representing bad, dated science of wolf behavior, despite being from an era when that bad science was really being pushed.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that I can say that I liked the book exactly, but I certainly didn’t like it either. My younger self must have enjoyed it, because it has been in my collection for…let’s see….let me do the math…holy crap, almost twenty years now. For the right reader, I think this book would absolutely fantastic. Even the not-great gender elements might simply provide a good opportunity for discussing gender stereotypes with a young reader. So while this book may not exactly be for me (anymore) and it may include somewhat outdated ideas and concepts, this by no means undermines it as a worthwhile coming of age story. It won’t be on my shelf much longer, but only because I know a reader who can give it more love and enjoyment than I, so I’ll be passing it on to her and, hopefully, giving it a bit longer of a life.

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