In a striking photograph that graces the cover of Andromeda Romano-Lax's highly entertaining novel "Annie and the Wolves," American celebrity sharpshooter Annie Oakley aims her rifle backward, over her shoulder, holding a small mirror to eye a target she surely won't miss.
That metaphor empowers the novel, which is part historical fiction about the aging Oakley coming to terms with childhood trauma. In her unfinished autobiography, she wrote about "the wolves" who had abused her as a child, never identifying them by name. Romano-Lax explores that mystery, presenting Oakley as a complex, introspective woman who in the early 1900s reaches out to a Viennese doctor for help with debilitating spells triggered by a 1901 train crash. During those spells, Oakley seems to, even tries to, travel back in time.
But that's just one of the novel's plot threads. Over more than 400 pages, mystery is layered upon mystery. Shoot ahead to 2018, when Oakley's papers are being researched by Ruth, a prickly Minnesota historian who is recovering from a horrific car accident and who suffers from fainting spells in which she envisions dreadful incidents in the future. As if that weren't enough, Ruth is also trying to better understand why her younger sister, Kennidy, killed herself as a teenager.
A third main character is Reece, a charming high school student who becomes fascinated with Ruth's research. He, Ruth and Oakley all have things in common — they are obsessive, anxious, prone to depression, and each has survived trauma.
Then there's the villain, a shadowy pedophile who is a "wolf" for the modern characters. And a host of other characters, including two of Ruth's paramours, who form the grid and community of the labyrinthine plot.
A small, provincial disappointment — though the story's modern era takes place in Minnesota, there is almost nothing recognizable in its scenery or culture to make that feel significant or interesting.
On its most powerful level, the book is a hyperactive psychological thriller, exploring the enduring damage done by childhood trauma and the need to mine and process it to become healthy, and the various ways in which victims do so. "Homo homini lupus (man is wolf to man,)" Freud is quoted as saying in the book's epigraph. Adds the great miner of the human mind, "Who in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?"
Ruth sees the world similarly, writing, "All our stories were like that: our passing joys and sorrows just the latest scratch marks on the Mobius strip of time and space that must of necessity be endlessly recycled."
Such psychological and historical approaches would have been enough. But the story veers into the realm of science fiction when characters start to travel forward in time, in some cases changing future events in ways only they will ever know about.
Readers will differ on whether that supernatural element strengthens or weakens the story's impact. But all will find it a highly imaginative and compelling read.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.
Annie and the Wolves
By: Andromeda Romano-Lax.
Publisher: Soho, 408 pages, $27.