"The story of what had happened went on reverberating in the words and gestures of everything people in town said, migrating in the whispering of teenagers in the hallways of high school, the low gossip of old people at the pool hall and grocery store, the hushed way parents tried to explain it to their children before bedtime, all of them knowing there was no language large enough to take the awfulness away."
From "Little Wolves"
To recommend Minnesota writer and poet Thomas Maltman's evocative mystery "Little Wolves" -- a novel seething with a disturbing darkness prompted from a monstrous act of violence -- in the aftermath of recent horrors may seem too soon. But it's not. Because when words fail us, it's our poets, writers like Maltman, who help us confront "the Other," whose stories possess us, keep us in place when we contemplate "madness or escape."
"Little Wolves" is set in the 1980s on Lone Mountain, a town in the Minnesota prairie "about 200 miles west of the Twin Cities" where the "wind has claws." A place that was once "shadow and shelter for generations of Indians" and is now home to a pregnant Clara, a "Ph.D. washout who hadn't been able to finish her dissertation" on Anglo-Saxon literature. Clara teaches English at the local high school, and her husband, Logan, is the town's Lutheran minister. The newlywed couple have come to this "dying region" because Clara is searching for the truth about her absent mother in the stories she grew up hearing from her father.
On a nearby farm, Grizz Fallon, a single father after his wife dies of lupus, is losing the battle to keep his farm viable and his family whole. He creates statues from Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha," figures "layered with cowrie shells and old glass bottles," that "crouch behind hewn stumps" along his driveway.
These characters become "tangled by blood" when Fallon's son, Seth, lopes into town, shoots the beloved sheriff and then kills himself, the word wergild ("gold for blood spilled") the only clue to his actions. With psychological insight, particularly through Clara's stories and a series of suspenseful reveals, we discover what may have triggered this "blood debt."
Layered with "words and mysteries" from Norse myths and allusions to Anglo-Saxon narratives (in particular the epic poem "Beowulf" and the myth of Ragnarok), "Little Wolves" is textured with the language of poetry that at times took my breath away. In ways, it reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." Although Maltman's novel is grounded in a recognizable reality, it's as rich in myth and metaphors, small and sweeping.
The novel begins with the telling of a story and ends with the creation of another. It's a time of extreme drought on plains that resemble "a giant's beard and eyebrows." Leaves are falling "early, small and skeletal." Monstrous corporations are swallowing up family farms, and the "prairie weeps." Clara was born premature, her body blanketed in a soft covering of hair, and at night "she still sensed the lanugo, a second bristling existence ... fur and wildness."
Whether you read this novel as an allegory -- perhaps for the "blood debt" we owe the land and past generations, for the death of small towns or for the importance of stories that carry "the memory of this lost world" to heal -- I'll leave you to decide. "The dead," Clara comes to realize, "carve out a space inside us." I believe a book can do the same.
Carole Barrowman teaches English at Alverno College in Milwaukee.