Book Review: Wolf Hollow
Today, we are digging up the deeper truths behind Wolf Hollow, a children's, historical fiction novel by Lauren Wolk. Interestingly, it's been two decades since she wrote her last book and it's based loosely on her childhood experiences. The authenticity shines!
I get a bit irritated at (certain) established mainstream genre authors who ride on past accolades and churn out half-baked, uninspired books year-after-year, each one less remarkable than its forerunner. I'm sorry, but if the writing isn't masterful and the story meaningful, I'm simply not interested.
Before we pull on our boots and tramp around Wolf Hollow together, I wanted to give some brief ratings to the other books I read in February.
YA Historical Fiction - The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets (reread) - 5 stars
MG Historical Fiction - One Came Home - 3 stars
MG Fantasy/Historical Fiction Crossover - The Apothecary - 3.5 stars
Adult Nonfiction Biography - Mrs. Astor Regrets - 3 stars
Adult Nonfiction Biography - Love Letters of Great Men - 4 stars
Did Wolf Hollow Deserve a Newberry Honor?
Generally, Newberry does an excellent job selecting their award winning books.
I know booksellers who refer to the Newberry selections as “the wall of tears" and yes, Newberry does latch on to the bittersweet, tear-jerkers, there's no doubt about it. Ever since I was a child I have trusted their selections. Newberry, to me, speaks of quality writing, poignant storytelling, and well-developed characters. Medal winners such as Jacob Have I Loved and A Year Down Yonder still stand among my nostalgic favorites.
Wolf Hollow is a worthy winner of the 2017 Newberry Honor. The essence of a well-crafted story is that it is has something to say. Something important. Something that matters. That something is never preached but often comes in a whisper, as we follow the protagonist's journey, as they struggle for good amidst the bad.
Wolf Hollow deals with hard issues of prejudice, bullying and the consequences of lies. But it is not without hope. Although there are a lot of things that I wrestled with throughout the book there were so many positive elements I didn't feel dragged through the Slough of Despond for a moment.
A (Mostly) Spoiler-Free Review
"The year I turned twelve I learned how to lie," Annabelle tells us in the opening line.
The year is 1943 and she lives in a Pennsylvania farming community. World War II is raging across the sea and although it remains a niggling worry in the back of Annabelle's mind, her problems are closer to home.
Annabelle’s life is a simple one. It consists of working on the family farm, attending a one-room schoolhouse and games that she and best friend, Ruth, play. Annabelle is good-hearted and has a close relationship with her parents. She is decidedly a first born who feels protective of her younger brothers, James and Henry.
Years before our story begins, Annabelle befriends Toby, a "wild man" who lives in an abandoned smoke-house in Wolf Hollow. Toby is a WW1 veteran (with PTSD and a hand injury) who drifted into the hills after the war and stayed. Many of the neighbors call him “strange” and avoid him, but Annabelle's family carries over pies and preserves to be neighborly.
Annabelle's sheltered life is forever changed when a "dark-haired girl" named Betty Glengarry moves to Wolf Hollow to live with her grandparents.
Betty is a bully. She waits on the path that Annabelle and her brother's James and Henry take to school and tells Annabelle that she has a "rich girl name." She then tells Annabelle that if she doesn't bring her something good she will beat her with a stick. She abuses Annabelle mentally and emotionally, saying that if Annabelle tells anyone she will hurt her youngest brother, James, with a rock.
Terrified, Annabelle breaks open her piggy bank and brings Betty a penny the next morning. Betty scoffs at the small offering and then beats Annabelle with a stick on her hip where the marks won't be apparent to Annabelle's teacher or her parents.
**I was crying out for justice by this point but this was only 1/8 way into the book. And things were about to get much, much worse.
The mistreatment continues until one day, Toby sees what is happening and intervenes by coming between the two girls. Betty falls backward into a patch of poison ivy.
Betty has it in for Toby after this and things go from bad to worse creating a domino effect of false accusations in order to cover up her own wrongdoings.
There’s a lot more that happens but…I’m not going to spoil it for you. ;)
Is Wolf Hollow a contemporary To Kill a Mockingbird?
As the old adage goes, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and so it is with stories. People have been telling the same stories since the first cave etchings, they are simply told in new and different ways.
I don’t know if anyone else is blogging about this, but I definitely noticed similar themes in Wolk’s Wolf Hollow and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
The most obvious come-away-with is that prejudice and lies can destroy a life.
Think about To Kill a Mockingbird for a moment. In that book, we get to know Tom Robinson, an African-American man with a crippled hand who is accused of raping a white girl. Through chapters of sweaty, courtroom drama, we come to find out that Tom is innocent. But does he get acquitted as an innocent man should?
Tom is an innocent/disabled man framed as a monster/victim.
Switching our focus back over to Wolf Hollow. Toby also has a hand injury and shows signs of mental illness/PTSD (though not violent), and he is misunderstood. Betty accuses Toby of throwing a rock that ends up hitting a little girl in the eye (Annabelle’s best friend Ruth), and later when Betty goes missing, people in the hollow believe that “Toby took her.”
Toby is an innocent/disabled man framed as a monster/victim.
Well-placed foreshadowing gives me the shivers and Wolf Hollow has it in spades. Foreshadowing is a tricky skill because it can easily morph into melodrama. Too much and the reader scoffs or feels manipulated, too little and they might not know what aspects of the story they should be focusing on.
“Little did I know that on that [camera] spool lay a whole new set of troubles…”
“I had no intention of lying to my mother and father or anyone else, I just didn’t know how complicated things would become….”
See what I mean? Yum!
Is this book for children or adults?
Initially, Wolk wrote the book for adults and based much of it on her own childhood experiences. (Which makes me sad. I really hope she wasn't bullied.) But because the protagonist is eleven-going-on-twelve she was urged by publishers to change it to a children's book. I think it will resonate with adults and children.
Even though it is a children's novel it's definitely not rainbows and unicorns. I think fiction is a great vehicle for kids to process the hard issues. Goodness knows they are going to face them!
The author keeps darker intimations to a minimum. For example:
After Annabelle hears the grownups talking about "Toby taking Betty" she wonders why on earth he would want to do that in the first place.
Meanly, Betty tells the little kids at school “where babies come from” and makes them cry. But no details are given as to what she said.
A little girl loses an eye, a quail is tortured, and someone gets their shoulder impaled.
I loved Annabelle’s genuine relationship with her parents. She comes clean about her lies at two different stages in the story and her mom and dad's responses are really wonderful.
The injustice is maddening, but not purposeless. I think it is an excellent critical thinking discussion to have with young readers. How can I stand up for justice? Can I be a friend to the friendless (Toby’s) of the world?
In short, Wolf Hollow is everything a novel should be. Now go, read!
What have you been reading? I'd love to know! Share your recommendations below!