Deep in the heart of northern Minnesota, a 10th-grader named Linda lives an aimless and mostly solitary life with her parents in the ruins of a failed commune. She doesn’t have many friends, and her only interests seem to be her dogs, fishing and rambling around the woods.

When a young family moves in across the lake, she finds herself babysitting the family’s young boy, Paul. If their bond does not evolve into love, it certainly takes on the blush of a deep and curious friendship.

Over the course of a year, as their bond forms, Linda and Paul learn to coexist in a house most notable for its strangeness.

Paul’s mother, Patra, and his father, Leo, are devout Christian Scientists, and while their lives appear normal at a glance, they’re really only experts at their own privacy. What they hide from others becomes their great tragedy, and Linda has a front-row seat for all of it.

This novel asks some difficult questions, especially of Patra and Linda. Late in the book Linda wonders, “What’s the difference between what you want to believe and what you do? … And what’s the difference between what you think and what you end up doing?”

Fridlund offers only her story in answer to these queries, and the effect is profound and disturbing. And surely it’s interesting to see these disparate lives unfolding in such proximity. The book’s peculiarity is its own reward. For all of this, the novel excels.

But the tragedy at the heart of this book is also complicated — taking as it does a family’s right to live (or die) according to its own faith.

Because Patra’s and Leo’s faith is foreign to Linda, it remains mostly foreign to the reader as well, a fact that left me wishing the novel had investigated more directly Leo’s hold on his kin.

The book also can’t quite decide whether it’s a literary novel or a thriller, and so in a sense fails at being either.

Couple this with a handful of egregious factual errors — Fridlund describes watching from a Canal Park hotel as Lake Superior waves drag stones out of a “cove,” refers to Hwy. 61 as an “interstate” and watches the tall ships entering Duluth harbor at 40 miles per hour, to name a few — and the book demonstrates a less than authoritative view of northern Minnesota, especially Duluth.

All of which is unfortunate, as this novel has so much else to offer, not the least a tragedy of Shakespearean scope.

 

Minneapolis writer Peter Geye is the author of “Wintering,” due out in paperback in May.

History of Wolves
By: Emily Fridlund.
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pages, $25.
Events: 7 p.m. Jan. 10, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.; 7 p.m. Jan. 12, Barnes & Noble, Galleria, Edina