Book Review: A Wolf at the Gate, Mark A. Van Steenwyk & Joel J. Hedstrom (2015)

April 29th, 2015 11:01 am by Kelly Garbato

A Retelling of the Legend of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

According to legend, the wolf of Gubbio was a lone wolf who terrorized the Umbrian city of Gubbio in 1220. The wolf began by attacking and eating livestock; over time the hostilities escalated, to the point that the wolf was feasting on humans as well, both hunters and innocent civilians alike. The wolf seemed invincible, or close to it, and he so frightened the people of Gubbio that they refused to leave the relative safety of their walls. When St. Francis arrived, the city was effectively under siege.

An Italian Catholic preacher, Saint Francis of Assisi is widely known today as the patron saint of animals and the environment. In this vein, St. Francis is said to have brokered a peace accord between the wolf and the people of Gubbio: if they agreed to feed the wolf, he would stop attacking the city. The oath was widely accepted – even considered a miracle by many – and, upon the wolf’s death, he was granted an honorable burial within the city limits. This site later became home to the Church of Saint Francis of the Peace. During renovations in 1872, the skeleton of a wolf was reportedly uncovered under a slab near the church wall.

A Wolf at the Gate is a retelling of this legend from the wolf’s point of view. Born into royalty, the red wolf (so named for the unusual color of her fur) assumes leadership of her pack upon the death of her parents. Taught to fear and avoid humans at all costs – “They are violent and greedy. They aren’t like any of the other beasts in the forest; they want to own it all.” – the wolf stubbornly ignores her pack’s insistence that they should leave their forest home in search of new lands, lands not yet spoiled by humans. The wolf’s leadership is challenged and she loses. Left alone in the forest, her rage and thirst for vengeance grow.

As in the legend, she begins raiding the city of Stonebriar; her cunning and bloodthirst earns her the nickname Blood Wolf. When The Beggar King, traveling through, learns of the city’s troubles, he seeks out the wolf in order to make peace between the warring parties. In exchange for a full belly, the wolf – now renamed Sister Wolf – agrees to stop the illicit killings. As she wanders amongst the humans, however, Sister Wolf despairs over the inequities that exist in her new, human pack: poverty, homelessness, and the like.

Aimed at children (the ebook is just a short 53 pages), A Wolf at the Gate is an entertaining bedtime read that also introduces kids to issues of social justice. Sister Wolf raises some important questions, but doesn’t stop there; buoyed by kindness and compassion for her former tormentors, she also takes bold action to effect change.

From a vegan perspective, however, the unfairness of the bargain struck between Sister Wolf and the people of Stonebriar really cut at my heart. Sister Wolf is expected to forgive all humans, everywhere, for waging war on her people; and yet, the Stonebriar-ians are only asked to show compassion for a single wolf – the last one remaining in the surrounding forest, after they killed and dislocated all the rest.

While it’s not entirely correct to say that Van Steenwyk doesn’t address the issues of habitat loss and mass wolf extermination – something that’s still happening today, nearly a thousand years later – they’re all but abandoned in light of the peace accord. The humans are never asked to repent or even apologize for killing Sister Wolf’s cousins, even as she personally apologizes to each and every farmed animal in Stonebriar. Additionally, Sister Wolf was transformed from a free-living and self-sufficient animal into a beggar, dependent on the goodwill of others; her human benefactors, meanwhile, were not required to change their destructive ways at all. Possibly the former cuts to St. Francis’s veneration of poverty; but the latter certainly says nothing of humankind’s stewardship of the earth.

I suppose the essence of my complaint is this: the story purports to be from the wolf’s perspective; and, though it does start out this way, Sister Wolf’s concerns are quickly overshadowed by those of the humans. Simply including a scene in which Sister Wolf raises this inequity with The Beggar King would have gone a long way towards restoring balance. That said, vegan-minded parents can use this as a jumping-off point for discussing these issues with their children.

Usually I don’t say this of illustrated children’s books, but seeing as A Wolf at the Gate is text-heavy, it’s easily readable on a Kindle. The illustrations by Joel J. Hedstrom are lovely (even in gray scale), though you may want to view the book on a full-color device to get the full effect.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: None.

Animal-friendly elements: Kind of. See my review.

 

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