Review: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk
By Clare Walters
Set in rural Western Pennsylvania, USA, in 1943, Wolf Hollow (2016) tells the story of 12-year-old Annabelle’s bruising experiences with an ‘incorrigible’, ‘dark-hearted’, older girl, Betty. It is a coming-of-age novel, a Bildungsroman, in which the protagonist goes through a period of intense psychological change over a matter of a few months. She transforms from a happy, innocent child into a more wary, but stronger and independent, young person who’s had first-hand acquaintance with the underbelly of humanity.
The story, told in the first person, is narrated by a mature female voice, reflecting on a time when she was younger. The older Annabelle recalls how, during a few momentous months, she was forced to reconsider both her place in the world and her understanding of other people. She ‘learnt how to lie’, and discovered that what she said and what she did actually ‘mattered’ – that her actions directly affected others.
As Lauren Wolk explains in her video on the Carnegie shadowing website, Annabelle is a good girl, with a strong sense of right and wrong, who tries to solve a problem without recourse to her parents. In doing so, she discovers her own moral strengths and weaknesses. To cope with the situations before her, she has to face her own fear and draw on reserves of courage. Annabelle is both brave and loyal, but she is also subject to emotions such as anger and meanness (at one point she prays for Betty to get blisters from her encounter with some poison ivy). She also experiences constant confusion, as she’s unfamiliar with dealing with the difficult new challenges that tumble fast, one upon the other.
Yet throughout, although unaware of the details of her trauma, Annabelle’s family is a reassuring presence. Her parents are stable and supportive, while evil Betty’s are unstable and absent. The notion of what family means is a key theme of the novel, but there are others too, including the nature of bullying and its antithesis kindness; the effects of war on both soldiers, particularly the reclusive wanderer Toby, and those who have subsequent contact with them; the difference between innate morality and formalised religion, as represented by Annabelle’s mother and aunt respectively; and the wider concepts of justice and retribution.
Wolf Hollow is set on a farm similar to the one on which the author’s mother grew up. Wolk says she drew on her memories of the place from her own childhood and also from her mother’s stories when describing the fictional landscape and farm. Countryside creatures and plants play an important role in the book. Animals feature throughout and appear in both their wild forms, such as wolves, snakes, rabbit, deer and quail, and in their domestic forms, such as the farm animals and dogs. Plants, especially poison ivy and its counterpart jewelweed, are significant too. Food also features strongly, both through regular mentions of life-sustaining arable crops like potatoes, corn, pumpkins, and apples, and through the descriptions of the wholesome, nourishing, farm food, prepared with care by Annabelle’s family. This abundance of healthy nutrition provides a sharp contrast to Toby’s very basic hunter-gather diet – and also to the wider depravation, even starvation, of the European population during World War Two.
Images of physical injury abound – some temporary, others permanent. Annabelle acquires a livid bruise from Betty’s blows, Toby’s hands are scarred from war, Betty suffers oozing blisters from the poison ivy and, perhaps worst of all, innocent Ruth loses her eye from Betty’s spiteful actions. And there are emotional injuries too, most specifically Toby’s inability to live a normal life after his wartime experiences.
Wolf Hollow is a richly layered novel with a fast-moving plot. On first read, there is an urge to turn the pages quickly in order to discover what’s going to happen next. However, the language in which the story is told is slower, more old-fashioned, even poetic, and this deserves reading, or re-reading, at a more leisurely pace. The book was originally conceived as an adult novel, and indeed its depiction of calculated violence is uncompromising, and the ending brutally stark. But it’s a story with resonance, a novel to be savoured and enjoyed. Just like Annabelle’s mother’s legendary hickory nut pie and cream.
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. We are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group is coordinated by NCRCL MA students Judy Digby and Nicki Oakes-Monger.