A thrilling plot + a scrappy antihero + a familiar-yet-not setting = a novel that belongs on the top of your TBR pile!
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including attempted rape.)
“Change” was one a’ them words I weren’t too friendly with. Nana told me I had to change when she caught me skinning a rabbit. Man in Ridgeway once told me I’d never get a husband the way I was. Only person never to tell me to change was Kreagar, and that’s because, way he saw it, I was already just the same as him.
Memories ain’t no one’s friend. They show you all the good things you had, all the good things you lost, and don’t let you forget all the bad shit in between.
I kept chewing. No matter what was about to happen, I’d eat as much as I could afore shots fired.
When Elka was seven years old, a freak storm destroyed her two-room shack in the forest beyond Ridgeway. She survived, but was hopelessly lost: the thunderhead deposited Elka – and the table she was clinging to – deep into the Thick Woods. After much wandering, she found a shack even smaller than her nana’s – one with strips of jerky curing on the porch. Starving, Elka swiped some meat, causing the owner of the shack to give chase. Eventually she’d come to think of this man as Trapper, then daddy – for he ultimately took Elka in and raised her as his own, teaching her the ways of the forest: hunting, tracking, trapping, skinning, curing. He showed Elka how to survive in the wild, though she learned little of the human world (“BeeCee”) beyond the trees.
During a rare trip into Dalston, a chance encounter with The Law – in the form of cold-as-ice Magistrate Jennifer Lyon – upends seventeen-year-old Elka’s world yet again: Kreagar Hallet, the man she knows as Trapper, is wanted for the murders of eight women and one child. Her home destroyed – metaphorically and literally burned to the ground by the redcoats – Elka decides to travel north to Halveston (seven hundred miles, give or take!) in search of her parents. They left Elka with her maternal grandmother when she was just a baby so they could find their riches in gold.
Yet Kreagar isn’t willing to let Elka go – and neither is Magistrate Lyon: the former is convinced that Elka dropped the dime on him; the latter, that Elka was involved in the murders. As she makes the treacherous journey north, Elka must evade capture, by enemies both known and not. Bloodthirsty, misogynistic Satanists; human traffickers; lakes made poisonous by nuclear bombs; garden-variety trolls and creepers; cannibals; and – perhaps most alarmingly – human attachments: all stand between Elka and her long-lost parents. Yet with her friends Wolf and Penelope by her side, Elka stands a fighting chance.
The Wolf Road is just … well, to quote Elka, “that feeling is something no number a’ pretty words can make real.” It’s just amazing: fast-paced, full of twists (each more horrifying than the last), and with a cast of characters that’s as colorful as the northern landscape is bleak. (Eight months of winter, are you f’in kidding me!?!) I often found it impossible to put down, as more than one late night can attest!
Let’s start with Elka, who is one of my favorite narrators in recent memory. She’s tough, scrappy, prickly, practical, and doesn’t take any shit from anyone. Never have I ever wanted so badly to meet a character who’s as anti-social as Elka. Born and raised in the forest, Elka is wild at heart; it’s among the trees and squirrels and wolves that she feels most at home. Yet in her travels she’s forced to enter the “human” world on occasion, which results in some great fish out of water moments that are both hilarious and heartbreaking (sometimes even at the same time).
Poor Elka just can’t catch a break; kidnapped, assaulted, almost sacrificed to Satan to ensure a short winter – Kreagar was just the start of Elka’s troubles, it seems. But as comically deep are the holes she digs for herself, there’s also an air of believably to her travails: Elka can’t read humans the way she can bear scat or birdsong. It’s no wonder, then, that she’s so easily deceived. (And it’s a good thing she’s so handy with a knife.)
Her friendship with Penelope, so unlike her on the surface, is wonderful and enthralling; truly, I loved watching it blossom. The two young women are so open and affectionate with one another that, for a time, I thought (hoped!) that it might develop into a more romantic relationship. Alas, it was not to be (no LGBTQ plot here, unless you’re willing to read between the lines and break with canon), yet I still appreciate the friendship just the same. Whereas Elka looks down on Penelope – beautiful, thin, well-dressed, educated – at first, she quickly learns that there’s more than one way to be mighty and cunning. Elka and Penelope both have specific strengths that complement one another; together, they make a formidable team.
And Wolf! How can you not love Wolf? Elka’s unexpected, burgeoning friendship with a wolf pup is so tender and emotional; her happy surprise at being accepted by “this wild thing, this old-world creature” hit deep in the feels, in a primal way I can’t even begin to describe.
The setting is quite engaging too, captivating in its ambiguity. While the world has a bit of a Wild West vibe, little details suggest that we’re way past the 1800s: nuclear bombs, car engines, electricity, and plastic bags all point to a primitive, pioneer-like future. Allusions to the the Damn Stupid (also known as the Fall) and the Second Conflict hint at a third (and maybe fourth) World War that blew us all back the stone age (or the Wild West, as it were).
Based on a few early reviews, I expected the language to be somewhere along the lines of the made-up dialect in Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star; maybe not quite as challenging, but close. Yet it’s far from impenetrable; mostly it just adds to the story’s anachronistic feel. Also, Elka’s blessed with a number of awesome one-liners, and her distinct speaking style just adds to the charm.
Last but not least is the title of the book, which carries myriad meanings and is thus awesome in my book. It was wolves that Kreager claimed to be hunting all those nights he left Elka alone in their hut; and yet he never came back with one, not once. This is of course the base meaning of the titular Wolf Road: the road that Kreagar and Elka walked together (if unknowingly); the road thus far. A road of bald-faced lies and intentional ignorance.
But Elka walks this road, at least part of the way, with an honest-to-goodness, flesh-and-blood wolf at her side; a friend and protector who has her back (and heart). Someone who helps to melt her cold exterior and softens her up for an (eventual) same-species friend: Penelope, to whom she confides her deepest, darkest secrets, and receives forgiveness. Road, meet full circle.
The Wolf Road works on so many levels: it’s a white-knuckle thriller, a roller coaster ride page turner. But it’s also a lovely and heartfelt rumination on the transformative power of friendship; a tribute to the beauty and purity of the wild; and a cautionary tale of what human greed and arrogance has in store for us – and the other creatures who live on this blue and green marble alongside us.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Elka was orphaned at the age of seven, when a thunderhead destroyed her two-room shack and killed her nana (in whose care her parents left her when they headed north in search of gold many years before). Elka is taken in my a recluse named Kreagar Hallet – who, as she learns ten years later, is responsible for the murders of eight women and one child.
Elka never learned to read, which becomes a source of shame when she runs away from Kreagar and travels north in search of her parents (thus leaving the wild and entering the “civilized” human world after a long absence).
Elka saves a young woman named Penelope; both girls were ensnared in a human trafficking ring, stuffed into crates, and being shipped to Halveston to be enslaved in a brothel. Elka kills a would-be rapist and then frees Penelope. After a series of fateful events, they decide to travel north to Halveston together. The two become friends, in spite of Elka’s inherent mistrust of people. Their bond is so deep, in fact, that for a time I wondered (hoped!) that it might evolve into a romantic relationship, but no dice: Penelope becomes enamored of Mark Thompson, a black man they meet on the road to Halveston. He’s traveling with his son Josh; and his sister Josie and her (white) husband Jethro run a lumberyard in town. The family adopts Penelope as one of their own.
Penelope’s father was a morphine addict, and sold her to a madame to sustain his drug habit.
In the wake of an attempted rape, and as her memories of life with Kreagar Hallet come back to her, Elka suffers from PTSD, including flashbacks and at least one panic attack.
Animal-friendly elements: Yes and no. While Elka hunts to survive (and kills in self-defense), she draws a line at unnecessary killing, whether it’s of human or nonhuman animals. Despite her meat-heavy diet, Elka seems to have great respect for nonhuman animals – and “the wild” in general – readily acknowledging that many of her nonhuman victims are undeserving of their fate – something that can’t be said for most of the people she meets.
During her travels, Elka manages to tame a wolf pup. Wolf, as she calls him, follows her hundreds of miles north in her quest to find her parents, occasionally warning her (and Penelope) of danger.