Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, 2016
YA novel; historical fiction
I try to keep up with the latest and greatest in children’s literature by reading as many books as I can fit into my schedule, which is generally an advantageous thing for me to do, considering that I am a children’s librarian. But it comes with the downside that I’m just a little bit jaded. There are times that I’ll say I “enjoyed” or “loved” a book when I mean that I took note of its positive attributes, and I didn’t actually have much of an emotional response to it. I often find myself paying attention to page numbers and counting down to the end of a book, even if it’s an interesting and well-written book. I no longer have the experience of getting completely caught up in a book the way I did as a child, at least not nearly as often. It takes a truly special book to make me reluctant to put it down and emotionally invested in what happens next. I am writing this now to tell you that Wolf Hollow is such a book.
It’s 1943, and eleven-year-old Annabelle of Wolf Hollow, Pennsylvania lives a relatively calm rural life despite the war waging overseas. But then Betty Glengarry comes to town. Betty is bigger, older, and meaner. Annabelle initially keeps Betty’s bullying a secret, but when Annabelle’s little brother James gets hurt on a wire stretched across a path, Annabelle tells her father that she suspects Betty. Meanwhile, Annabelle’s friend Ruth has lost her eye in an incident involving a rock that was evidently aimed for Mr. Ansel, a neighbor who is disliked by some because he came from Germany. Betty claims to have seen Toby, an eccentric WWI veteran, throw the rock. Toby is a friend of Annabelle’s family despite his loner lifestyle and odd mannerisms, which everyone attributes to shell-shock. Annabelle knows that Toby is innocent, but the evidence seems to be piling up against him. Then Betty goes missing and everyone suspects Toby of kidnapping her, maybe even killing her. It’s up to Annabelle to defend her friend.
I’d read a synopsis or two of Wolf Hollow and went into it expecting a book with all the feel-good and cliché messages typical of books about standing up to bullies, about honesty, and about friendship. What I found was much more nuanced. This is a book that has some very sad scenes that aren’t resolved in a satisfactory way, some metaphors that you don’t necessarily notice at first, and some questions that are never fully answered. For example, unlike in most bully stories, Betty is neither completely demonized and dehumanized, nor absolved of her wrongdoings through the revelation of a tragic backstory. The reader is given a few clues about the struggles that Betty has faced in the past, and her fate later in the book makes it hard to hate her too strongly, but it’s made clear that she’s still a terrible bully whose actions are completely unjustifiable. And the themes and motifs about hiding/being hidden/being lost/being underground are clever and intriguing. Besides all that, there was an element of mystery in the plot. I, for one, spent a significant portion of the story wondering who was guilty of what crimes. Was Toby really as innocent as Annabelle firmly believed? Was her dislike of Betty blinding her to what was really happening? It almost came as a surprise to me when there wasn’t a surprising twist along those lines. Even without that twist, this is a high-suspense story.
Before I wrap up, I can’t give this book a fair description without mentioning the use of foreshadowing. For me, that was a major piece of what made Wolf Hollow so gripping and so unique. I’m not always a huge fan of foreshadowing, but when it’s done well—when the relevant passages are infrequent, strategically placed, tantalizingly vague, but emotionally charged enough to set the mood—the effect is powerful. In this case, one additional benefit to the use of foreshadowing is that it avoided an artificial note of finality in certain scenes where it looked like certain problems had been resolved. Besides that, it added the sense that this story was being told in retrospect, which I find to be very effective for intellectual historical fiction.
I read in a Goodreads review that Wolk originally intended to write Wolf Hollow for adults, and that didn’t surprise me. I could see myself recommending this book to adults, even those who don’t normally read children’s or teens’ fiction, despite the fact that it features a preteen protagonist and has a YA call number. I also think that it’s a great read for high schoolers as well as for readers who are closer to Annabelle’s own age. Although it isn’t very challenging if we’re just looking at vocabulary, sentence structure, and length, I don’t see myself recommending it for kids younger than middle school. (Unless they’re looking for something that fulfills very specific criteria and this book fits their requests to a T) It’s conceptually more advanced than juvenile novels, it assumes some degree of background knowledge about the rural American 1940’s lifestyle, and there are a couple passages where characters sustain some pretty disturbing injuries. But to me, none of those factors diminish the book’s quality. This is probably my favorite book of 2016 so far, and I would be thrilled to see it with a Newbery medal on its cover in five months.