Book Review: The Wolf Wilder, Katherine Rundell (2015)

August 26th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“Stories can start revolutions.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Mild trigger warning for sexual harassment of a minor.)

Humans, on the whole, Feo could take or leave; there was only one person she loved properly, with the sort of fierce pride that gets people into trouble, or prison, or history books.

[A] wolf who cannot howl is like a human who cannot laugh.

Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there lived a dark and stormy girl. She was wild in spirit and loved fiercely; and no wonder, for she was raised in the company not of humans, but of wolves. They were her friends, her teachers, her pupils, her family – her (almost) everything. And, at the tender age of twelve, this girl and her half-tame friends would go on to lead a revolution.

Feodora Petrovich and her mother Marina live in the Russian wilderness, not too far from Saint Petersburg. Though they’re the only humans for miles, they’re hardly alone – not exactly. The Petrovich family has been wilding wolves for centuries – since the days of Peter the Great, in fact.

Wolf wilding is the exact opposite of wolf taming (not that you can ever truly tame a wolf, mind you): training captive wolves to survive in the wild, without any human interference. Feo and Marina take in wolves who were kidnapped as pups, sold as pets, and subsequently – unsurprisingly – became “dangerous” or “nuisance” animals as they aged. Many of “their” wolves left with a piece of their former owners, literally: fingers, ears, noses, or a pound of random flesh.

Wolves aren’t just status symbols in Russia, but also good luck charms; conversely, it’s considered bad luck to kill a wolf. Thus, unwanted wolves become problems, foisted onto wolf wilders by the rich.

Not that Feo would ever describe her wolf friends as such: aside from Marina, the wolves are the only family Feo has ever known. So when the Tsar’s favored General, Mikhail Rakov, orders that they stop wilding wolves – the same wolves who are killing “his” wild game – under penalty of imprisonment or death, Feo and Marina defy his command. Naturally. In retaliation, Rakov destroys their home, arrests Marina for treason, and vows to exterminate Feo and her wolves for good.

Now it’s up to Feo to rescue her mom from Kresty Prison. Luckily, she has a little help in the form of Black, White, and Gray, her adopted wolf family. There’s also Ilya, an unwilling child soldier gone AWOL; Alexei Gastevski, a fifteen-year-old agitator from a nearby village, ransacked by Ravok and his men just days before; and the village children, who have tired of their parents’ deliberations and want nothing more than the chance to wreak a little mayhem.

The Wolf Wilder is a beautiful, magical, heartfelt fairy tale wrapped in a warm, furry package. Rundell’s prose is simple yet stirring; The Wolf Wilder is filled with lovely, eminently quotable bits.

The wolves, of course, positively steal the show. The passages about the wolves – their mistreatment at the hands of humans, their indomitable spirits, Feo’s interactions with (and love for) them – are among the most beautiful in the book.

Animal activists will note a clear parallel between the treatment of wolves in contemporary America and turn-of-the-century Russia: eschewing traditional superstitions surrounding wolves, Rakov instead sees them as vermin (and Feo, tellingly, is likewise vermin when she is with them; holy dehumanizing and othering, Batman!). When the wolves kill other free-living animals, such as elks, Rakov becomes enraged: in his speciesist worldview, all the animals of the world (or Russia, at least) belong to him, and as such the wolves are stealing his animals. Sentience be damned. This is also the same effed up logic that’s led to the mass extermination of wolves in the U.S.: ranchers become positively murderous when wolves kill “their” cows, pigs, chickens – farmed animals who were destined for the dinner table one way or another.

That said, the kids are pretty awesome too. This is a story populated largely by children; save for Marina, the adults are mostly villainous or indifferent. Or scared to act – that is, until their children show them the way.

Feo is … well, Feo. I suspect that I feel the same way about dogs that she does wolves – I have five rescues and also foster – and I could relate to her on so many levels. Her friendships with Black, White, Gray, Tenderfoot, and the pup were a pleasure to witness, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried more than once. (“More than once”? I went through half a box of Kleenex, dammit!) Socially awkward due to her limited interactions with humans, it was also nice to watch her cultivate relationships with teenagers Ilya and Alexei. Likewise, I loved watching Ilya overcome his fear of wolves.

And can we talk about Ilya for a moment? A sensitive and artistic boy, Ilya’s father made him join the tsar’s Imperial Army after the death of his mother. When he first meets Feo, it’s to carry out Rakov’s order to KILL ALL THE WOLVES! In this case, a very pregnant, about-to-give-birth Tenderfoot. He doesn’t particularly want to, which is perhaps why Feo is able to scare/persuade him into dropping his gun. Once he meets Tenderfoot’s unnamed pup – one of two, the first of which was stillborn – his heart slowly starts to warm to this vilified species. (I also appreciate how Rundell employs the power of baby animals to break down barriers.) Thus begins a friendship to last a lifetime.

Rundell drops small hints that Ilya might be gay; so small, in fact, that I initially thought I was imagining things. For example, Ilya always seems to turn beet red in Alexei’s presence, and manifests a strong desire to impress the older boy.

Ilya loves to dance (not that challenging gender roles makes you gay, fyi) and never misses an opportunity to dazzle. Feo describes his dancing “like a lost boy foun: like a victory parade.” When the famed Igor Darikev comes to recruit Ilya as a student, he cautions the boy that such a decision is not to be taken lightly: the life of a dancer is a hard one, filled with strenuous work, long days, and a lonely social life. The exchange that follows pretty much sealed the deal for me:

“Dancers – they are not always respected. They often find it hard to marry.”

Ilya fiddled with his lip. “That’s not a problem, for me,” he said.

While it’s clearly geared toward younger readers, The Wolf Wilder is an enchanting fairy tale for those of all ages.

Read it: During the next snow storm; from the bottom of a dog pile; to your kids, no matter their age.

(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: The story is set in turn-of-the-century Russia, and as such, all of the characters are Russian. However, Rundell drops hints that thirteen-year-old child soldier Ilya is gay. For example, he’s forever blushing in the presence of Alexei and loves to dance. Not that dancing makes him gay, mind you; but when the owner of a nearby ballet school comes to recruit him, they share the following exchange:

“Dancers – they are not always respected. They often find it hard to marry.”

Ilya fiddled with his lip. “That’s not a problem, for me,” he said.

Animal-friendly elements: I’d characterize The Wolf Wilder as having a strong animal welfare/conservation bent, specifically in relation to wolves. Wolves are portrayed as wild animals who are damaged, sometimes profoundly, by captivity. Many wolves come to Feo overweight, in poor health, timid, and with few or no survival skills. While Rundell describes the mistreatment of wolves at the hands of humans in fair detail, this passage in particular broke my heart:

“Society” wolves could always beg, hold out a paw, lie still. Often – it made Feo want to cry – they could dance on their hind legs, their faces blank.

Likewise, many are given up because they (surprise, surprise) acted aggressively toward their owners. Wolves are wild animals and should stay in the wild. Presumably the same goes for other species: chimpanzees, tigers, foxes, lemurs, you name it. Animal activists may also note that Rakov’s attitude towards/treatment of wolves mirrors that shared by many in modern-day America (wolves are vermin; it’s okay to kill wolves for killing other wild or domesticated animals, even if humans were just going to kill those animals themselves). See my review for more.


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  1. Book Review: The Wolf Wilder | Simply Christine Says:

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