book review, children's literature, E. B. White, historical fiction, home front, hypocrisy, Lauren Wolk, literary fiction, Pennsylvania, prejudice, shell shock, subversion, twentieth century, World War I, World War II
Review: Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk
Dutton, 2016. 291 pp. $17
Eleven-year-old Annabelle McBride learns to lie because a sadistic newcomer to her rural Pennsylvania town pushes her to it. Betty Glengarry is several years older and uses her superior size, strength, and aggressiveness to work her will. She demands money, threatens Annabelle’s younger brothers if Annabelle doesn’t comply, and dishes out punishment that suggests what she’s capable of. Since it’s 1943, and everyone’s thinking about the war effort against Germany, it’s a nice touch to portray a young girl confronting a bully at home.
In this engaging, evocative novel meant chiefly (but not solely) for children, I wish Wolk had taken more care to connect the dots, of which the bullying theme provides one example. Annabelle never once thinks about what purpose the war might have, or whether the adults around her live up to their patriotism. She doesn’t even recognize that the McBrides, as a farm family, can feed themselves more generously than city folk, whose lives are more strictly rationed–another opportunity missed.
Even so, Wolk derives power from small moments writ large. The key character here is Toby, a veteran of the previous war who’s never recovered from whatever he saw and did in battle. Toby strikes most people as odd, but, never having hurt anyone, he lives as he likes, as a hermit in the woods, and his eccentricities have never roused anything more hostile than gossip. Now, however, as Betty’s cruelties multiply, Toby becomes a convenient suspect. Annabelle gathers that Betty’s trying to frame him, and most people implicitly accept his guilt, preferring to blame a misfit rather than a sweet, innocent girl.
Annabelle therefore takes it upon herself to protect a man she knows as fragile and frightened, kind when you allow him to be. It outrages her particularly that her Aunt Lily ranks among his most outspoken (and wrongheaded) critics. But to protect Toby requires more and more deceit, which makes Annabelle uncomfortable, so there’s that. And as the net around him tightens, the more she discovers that adults whom she’d trusted to believe in fairness or justice seem ready to let their prejudices guide them instead. This too is a nice touch; she faces down a bully, whereas they attack the victim.
I like both the moral meat implied here and the manner in which Wolk serves it. Her clear, lucid prose makes me think that she believes in E. B. White’s rules for cherishing the English language; and her careful, loving portrayal of rural life evokes one of his favorite subjects and philosophy. Consider this passage:
Our old barn taught me one of the most important lessons I was ever to learn: that the extraordinary can live in the simplest things.
Each season meant a world refashioned inside its stalls and storerooms.
Pockets of warmth in winter, the milk cows and draft horses like furnaces, their heat banked by straw bedding and new manure.
In spring, swallows fledged from muddy nests wedged in crannies overhead, and kittens fresh and soft staggered between hooves and attacked the tails of tackle hanging from stable pegs.
But, as White also understood, children’s literature is no good without a strong element of subversion. Children see adult hypocrisy, cruelty, irrationality, and faithlessness more clearly than anyone else, because they’re tuned to it and suffer from it the most–think of Huckleberry Finn, Alice puzzling her way through Wonderland, or, more recently, Harry Potter’s struggles with evil incarnate. Wolk has the moral setup, for sure, delivered with admirable economy. Without fuss or heavy lifting, she gives you good versus evil, truth versus lies, the suffering of the innocents, and betrayal. What more could you want?
Answer: depth and ambiguity. Toby, Annabelle, and just about all her family are 100 percent good, despite a minor failing or two, whereas Betty is all bad, without a redeeming feature. Moreover, it’s not just that she’s bad; she’s a sociopath, a cliché that has ruined many a novel. As my seventeen-year-old astutely observed–he read the book over my shoulder during a long plane ride–Wolf Hollow would be far more gripping and believable had Annabelle rejected Betty’s friendly overtures, prompting a reaction. That would have redressed the balance between the characters, which Wolk could have fleshed out further had Betty’s cruelties seemed more like acting out or an attempt to get attention rather than cold-blooded violence. Instead, Betty has an accomplice in her ne’er-do-well boyfriend, with whom she gets up to who knows what, so she becomes that kind of girl–another cliché. And to overturn this axis of evil, Annabelle pulls off some rather improbable stunts, especially miraculous from so young a protagonist.
I give Wolk credit for daring to hurt her characters, both good and bad–she’s willing to show that life isn’t fair. But she’d have written a much better book had she not ducked two subversive truths: Good and bad aren’t always easy to see, and doing the right thing is usually more complicated than it appears.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.