Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk (Dutton Children’s Books, 2016)

(Reviewed by Sandy Brehl)

Much is made, among readers and writers, of the power of a memorable opening line. In the case of Wolf Hollow, debut novelist Wolk manages to hook readers in the first ten words of a two-page prologue:

“The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.”

Her two-page prologue closes with even more powerful words:

”But there was more to it than that.

… I learned that what I said and what I did mattered.
So much, sometimes, that I wasn’t sure I wanted such a burden.

But I took it anyway, and I carried it as best I could.”

It is the irresistible voice of twelve-year-old Annabelle, revealing her intertwined strength and vulnerability. Despite her claims of learning to lie, I had no doubt she would be a brutally honest narrator of her unpredictable and far-from-safe future.

Line after line, page after page, character after character, the story builds, strengthens, deepens, and never disappoints. Along the way, relationships and conflicts and the larger social order make this book unforgettable and deserving of Booklist’s starred review:

“Perfectly pitched to be used in classrooms in conjunction with To Kill a Mockingbird.”

This was not the only reviewer to make the comparison with Harper Lee’s iconic masterpiece.

After devouring Wolf Hollow, I found myself eager to write about it. Yet it is a challenging book to review, especially without introducing spoilers in the discussions. On the other hand, a brief description, with a minimum of essential details, denies a reader much of the heart of this story. But I prefer to let the reader experience the story as I did, as it emerges on the page.

If you feel a need to understand the complexity and crisis-ridden aspects of the story and its players before reading, I recommend Betsy Bird’s review in her School Library Journal Fuse #8 blog. She warns early on that her remarks are spoiler-stuffed, but her enthusiasm is unbounded.

My description, in contrast to hers, is a more simplified summary.

Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk

In 1943, twelve-year-old Annabelle lives in rural Pennsylvania with her loving parents and two younger brothers. Despite evidence of the painful effects of both World Wars I and II on her community, hers is a safe and familiar life. Her family remains intact and relatively untouched by the painful current war, or by the lingering effects of WWI (ending only a few decades earlier), including a long-term prejudice toward Germans.

Her family is relatively affluent but genuinely generous and empathetic to all, including the young-ish man, Toby. Toby is a WWI veteran who wears a dark, draping overcoat, hauls three rifles over his shoulder everywhere he goes, lives hand-to-mouth, and prowls the hills and trails of the surrounding countryside both day and night. Many in the community fear him, but Annabelle’s family sees him as a victim of the earlier war who is no threat to anyone. They see the best in everyone, and Annabelle does the same, as the story opens.

Readers (and Annabelle) quickly learn that antagonist is an inadequate word for villainous Betty Glengarry. She arrives, suddenly, to stay with her grandparents because she was found to be incorrigible living with her mother and attending a city school. With her arrival Annabelle’s lifelong trust and kindness are shaken and nearly shattered. So much so, in fact, that she finds herself lying to her own family.

Lauren Wolk, author of Wolf Hollow

Lauren Wolk, author of Wolf Hollow

Author Wolk does not dabble in memes and stereotypes, and Betty is far worse than a schoolyard bully or mean-girl power-seeker. She hits Annabelle with sticks, breaks a bird’s neck, and torments and threatens Annabelle’s young brothers, all of which underscore the frighteningly real menace posed by her escalating threats. Fear of Betty’s wrath limits Annabelle’s options in reporting or seeking adult intervention. When that eventually happens, Betty manages to twist the truth and gain sympathy instead of supervision.

Within the opening pages Annabelle faces dangers with an intensity that builds at a heart-stopping pace. Wolk’s multi-faceted characters are complex and intricately woven. Doubt and danger quickly permeate formerly welcoming scenes: their one-room schoolhouse, the path through the woods, and even Annabelle’s sense of safety at home.

Toby’s sinister image might foreshadow a predictable villain, but nothing in this story is predictable. Instead, the prospect of Toby lurking in the shadows becomes a welcome thought as we gradually learn more about him and his interest in Annabelle and her family.

I longed for a more detailed backstory on Betty, yet her sketchy past served to bolster her deep-seated well of venom and the malicious intent with which she inflicted pain, on Annabelle and on others. She is not a typical middle-grade bully, nor is she so over-the-top as to be unrealistic. She is all the more credible because her maneuvers are magnified versions of familiar bullying, especially among middle-grade kids whose ability to anticipate consequences and inhibit impulse can be meager, at best.

After learning that this book began as an adult novel, I found Annabelle’s powerful and fluent narration, introspection, and attempts to shoulder adult responsibilities all the more impressive. She is an intense and authentic girl-of-that-age who is coming of age, living in a time and circumstance when early maturity was required. From those first words in the prologue, Annabelle is dealing with threats to herself and her younger brothers, observing and suffering physical and verbal cruelty, and seeking answers to questions and alternatives that seemed to have no viable solutions. Her youth and confusion are palpable.

I choose to read books that have something to offer me as both a reader and a writer: amazing language and craft, engaging characters, and – above all– a well-told story. Even so, I hesitate to read books that might include disturbing violence, or shock for the sake of shock value. I had hesitated to read Wolf Hollow, anticipating that it just wouldn’t be a book “for me,” that my reading of it might not echo the high praise it was receiving.

I couldn’t have been more wrong about this, and I couldn’t be happier to admit it. Wolf Hollow needs to be read, shared, and recommended. Although it defies standard advice for middle grade books – to have happy resolutions – I understand that some stories, like this one, demand a more nuanced touch. After all, I write books with some disquieting events, as they are set in occupied Norway during the 1940s, and life, whether during wars or in so many other scenarios, is not always filled with happiness or resolutions without a recollection of sadness.

Middle-grade readers want and need honesty, and I was floored by the raw reality as portrayed through Annabelle’s eyes and voice. Middle graders will also be as strengthened and encouraged by her resilience, initiative, and self-awareness as I was. And they will be encouraged and comforted by the realistic love, warmth, and security provided by her family, including her obnoxious Aunt Lily.

Its comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird are valuable. Like that classic, this is a book that begs for discussion, questions, and group exploration. It runs long as a classroom read-aloud, although unanimous insistence to read further, day after day, will keep it moving with no lack of interest. It’s ideal as a family read-aloud, for book study groups, and for independent readers willing to initiate discussions.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird on my own when it was released. I loved it, and then set it aside. Despite my experience with teen and adult novels at the time, I read it at the level of my own age and maturity – that of a preteen. I’ve reread it, multiple times, decade after decade, and I never fail to discover and react to deeper and deeper levels of characters and story with each reading.

Wolf Hollow is such a book. I expect to reread it in a few years and find even more to love when I do. I hope you’ll read Wolk’s first line, and then read on to the last.

Wolk’s most recent release is Beyond the Bright Sea (May 2017), which will be reviewed here on The Storied Past blog soon. It is another powerhouse story with unforgettable characters.

Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk
Dutton Children’s Books • 2016
304 pages
Juvenile Fiction/Chapter Book/Ages 10 and up
ISBN 9781101994825
Newbery Honor Book for 2017; multiple starred reviews

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Reviewer Sandy Brehl is author of the Odin’s Promise middle-grade historical trilogy set in occupied Norway during World War II, including Odin’s Promise and Bjorn’s Gift. The concluding title in the trilogy, Mari’s Hope, will release September 5, 2017. An active member of SCBWI, she lives in Muskego, Wisconsin.

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