I picked up this book because it appeared on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. The book has its strong points, but I can’t say that I experienced much pleasure while reading it.
The novel is narrated by Madeline (Linda) Furston, an adult looking back at her life as a young teen. She lives in northern Minnesota with her parents, the remaining members of a failed commune. Her home is a drafty cabin without the basic amenities of modern life. She is a solitary girl who is left unsupervised and wanders the woods around her home: “The twenty acres of land on the east side of Still Lake. That’s what I knew.” Two events impact her life: the arrival of a new teacher, Mr. Grierson, who shortly afterwards is charged with two crimes of a sexual nature; and the arrival of the Gardner family. She becomes attached to Patra Gardner who hires Linda as a babysitter for four-year-old Paul until his untimely death.
This is a sad book. Linda is desperately lonely and feels unloved. Her bond with her parents seems tenuous: “I never even knew for sure if they were my real parents, or if they were simply the people who stayed around after everyone else went back to college or office jobs . . . They were more like stepsiblings than parents.” They do not show her affection and, at one point, she has no contact with her mother for two years. Until the arrival of Patra, Linda’s strongest bond seems to be with her dogs. She develops an almost romantic attachment to Patra which had me wondering whether Linda was sexually attracted to her. Linda describes herself as “flat chested, plain as a banister. I made people feel judged” so it is understandable why she is so interested in Lily, the pretty girl who “could make people feel encouraged, blessed.”
Like many young people who have not yet matured, she is selfish and seems to lack empathy; when it is obvious that Paul is becoming more and more ill, she shows little concern for him, especially as evidenced in her meandering walk from the drugstore and her selfishness in not asking for help for him because “it would mean . . . the end of everything worthwhile [relief from boredom and loneliness for her].”
It is with Mr. Grierson that Linda seems to identify. She sees in his desire to be liked by his students her own desire to belong. She also sees him as both a victim and a perpetrator since he is innocent of one of the charges made against him. She seems to see herself in the same way: guilty of not doing something but innocent because she only partially understood what was happening since she “took in information differently.” Mr. Grierson tells her in a letter that some people “will defend people like me on principle because when their turns come around, they want that so badly for themselves.”
The book examines how children become hostages to their parents’ beliefs. Because of her parents’ chosen lifestyle, Linda often walks miles to school and wears clothes made from other people’s clothes. Linda is ostracized at school and is desperately lonely. She mentions that she knows only one way to pray: “Dear God, please help Mom, Dad, Tameka, Abe, Jasper, Doctor, Quiet, and Paul to be not too bored and not too lonely. Not too. It was the only prayer I knew.” Obviously, to be bored and lonely are feelings she knows first-hand. Perhaps it is this life that accounts for Linda’s fascination with wolves; she wants a time when she can be an alpha animal. Paul is another example of someone whose life is determined by his parents; their beliefs affect decisions he and his wife make regarding Paul.
The book also examines whether actions or thoughts are more important. Leo, Paul’s father, believes “’It’s not what you do but what you think that matters.’” He uses this belief to justify his inaction. And Mr. Grierson feels guilty because he thought of committing a crime even though he never acted on it. Linda is not sure and wonders whether “It’s not what you think but what you do that matters.” She remains passive when action is needed and there are terrible consequences for which she feels guilt.
I have several problems with the book. I found it very slow because there is minimal plot and very little suspense. We are told from the first page that Paul dies, so it does not take long for any astute reader to see where the book is going. Another weakness is that at times the writer explains too much and at other times she explains too little. For example, Linda is a keen observer of nature so descriptions of the natural world abound. Repeatedly, such descriptions are used to convey mood and to foreshadow. This technique became tedious after a while. On the other hand, the Grierson story and the Gardner narrative seem unrelated and the reader is left to figure out the connections. Unfortunately, because I quickly found the book tedious, I didn’t really want to spend time figuring out the messages.
The issues the author addresses are important, but I just found little enjoyment in the way she examines various themes. I appreciate interpretive literature that inspires me to think but that does not mean it should be devoid of entertainment value.