Reading guide for History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

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History of Wolves

by Emily Fridlund

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund X
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2017, 288 pages

    Nov 2017, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  1. This book is narrated in a nonlinear fashion. Linda mixes her timelines and reveals details to us in a surprising order. How does this structure serve the story that Linda is telling? Why do you think the author chose to tell it this way?
  2. "Before Paul, I'd known just one person who'd gone from living to dead." (p. 4) How does it affect you to know that four-year-old Paul is dead before you are introduced to him as a character? Does this change how you understand and take in the events that occur later on?
  3. "My name was Madeline, but at school I was called Linda, or Commie, or Freak." (p. 8) Over the course of the book, our protagonist is called Linda, Mattie, the Teenager, CEO, Girl Scout, the Fool, Janet, Governess, and a few other names. What is the significance of Linda's constantly shifting identity? Does she seem to be more comfortable with one name than others?
  4. When Linda is asked to give a report for school, she chooses the history of wolves. How does Mr. Grierson respond? Why does Linda choose this particular topic? What do the wolves represent to Linda? How do wolves function as a symbol in Linda's life? Who are the wolves throughout the story?
  5. When Linda confronts Lily about making up what happened with Mr. Grierson, Lily very casually admits that she did make it up. Why is Linda interested in what happened between Lily and Mr. Grierson? What is Linda's relationship with Lily like early on in the novel and how does it change? Does she seem to admire Lily at first for the lie she told?
  6. On the stand during Mr. Grierson's trial, Lily recants her statement about her relationship with him. During his plea bargain, Mr. Grierson says, "I didn't touch that girl, but I thought about it, I thought about it, I thought about it, I thought about it. I thought out worse things than she said." (p. 133) Is it possible that Lily was lying to cover up for him? Or did Lily recognize something in Mr. Grierson that made her think he would go along with her story?
  7. When Linda meets Paul and Patra for the first time after watching them through her window, she has a brief conversation with them before Patra invites her to walk home with them. Linda thinks: "It pleased me for reasons I could not explain to be part of the latter allegiance. I nodded, surprising myself." What is it that Linda sees in Patra initially? How does her interest in Patra differ from her interest in Lily? Does Linda seem interested romantically in either of these characters?
  8. Linda first sees something different in Paul when she takes him to the playground. When a little girl hurts herself, Paul crouches over her, saying, "There is no spot where God is not." When Linda asks him about it after, Paul says he healed her. How does Linda manage this interaction? Why doesn't she ask his parents about it? What is revealed when, at the end of the chapter, Linda notes, "By their nature, kids were also parrots"? (p. 59)
  9. The physical relationship between Paul and Patra seems to have a strong effect on Linda. She describes it throughout the book with words like clingy, petting, possessive. Why would Linda be fascinated by, or even uncomfortable with, this kind of parent/child relationship? Do you think she wishes she had that kind of relationship with her own mother? Or with Patra?
  10. Even though we know that Paul dies from the book's beginning, this doesn't stop Linda from imagining him as a teenager, well-liked but not excelling at anything, and at twenty-six, regretting a tattoo, but with an interesting future. Why does Linda project these impossible futures on Paul? 
  11. After she has become a part of Paul and Patra's daily routine, Linda still overstays her welcome some evenings and at one point lingers outside of their house, peering through their windows. Why does she keep watching them like this? What motivates her to stay in their house even when they are busy? Why does this behavior change when Leo shows up?
  12. When Leo's plane is delayed, Patra comes home late and crawls into the indoor tent where Linda and Paul are sleeping. There is a tender moment when Patra is crying and Linda removes her boots, marveling at how "ridiculously small" Patra's feet seem. (p. 86) Later, Linda wakes up and listens to Paul and Patra breathing. "Happy. I was happy. I barely recognized the feeling." (p. 87) She imagines then that Leo never comes. Where does Linda imagine she fits into Patra and Paul's life? Why would she wish Leo away without meeting him?
  13. As Linda is about to walk into her home after spending the night at Patra's, she suddenly decides to take her canoe to Lily's home and leaves her a pair of black suede boots that she's taken from the lost and found earlier in the week. What compels Linda to do this? Why doesn't she tell Lily's father what she is doing? What does Linda learn about Lily in this scene, and what does this moment suggest about why Linda might be drawn to her?
  14. Before Linda goes on the trip to Duluth with Patra's family, she spends a long time choosing her clothes, packing, and bathing. After spending all spring with Patra and Paul dressed as usual for the woods and school, why does Linda take such care in her preparations for this overnight trip?
  15. In Duluth, when Linda wakes up, Paul and Patra are gone, and she is alone with Leo. Leo attempts to engage her in a theological conversation. When Linda feels angry and embarrassed, she lets Leo know that she was spying on him while he and Patra got intimate the night before. How does Linda feel about Leo? Why does she reveal she was watching him the previous night? Why do you think Patra left them alone together instead of waking her up? 
  16. 16. Duluth is where Paul begins to exhibit more acute symptoms. How did you feel about Patra and Leo's reaction to his illness? Did you understand their motivation before the reveal that they were Christian Scientists?
  17. Eventually Linda discovers that Patra met Leo when he was her college instructor. What are the parallels between Patra and Leo, and Lily and Mr. Grierson? Does Patra seem defensive about how she met Leo?
  18. At the point in the story where you understand that Paul is really sick, the author slows the story down, giving you bits of Linda's growing up life with parents, and her banter with the mechanic boyfriend. What is the storytelling purpose behind delaying the inevitable outcome of Paul's illness? Did you learn more about Linda in this section? Did it help you understand her part in what happened to Paul? Why?
  19. After returning home from Duluth, Linda sneaks out of her house and takes the canoe to Patra and Leo's cabin. When she gets there, Paul is in his room, Patra seems anxious, and Leo is making pancakes. When Leo hints that Linda needs to leave, she resists. At points in the story Linda claims not to know there was something seriously wrong with Paul, but there is obviously something motivating her to continue to check on Paul and Patra. Is Linda revising her memories to assuage her guilt? Or is there something else driving her to stay near the family?
  20. When Linda is living in Minneapolis, she decides to write Mr. Grierson a letter. "I think you're innocent," she writes. "I think you should hear that from someone." (p. 191) What is her motivation behind writing him? Why does Linda care about this teacher? Is it surprising that he writes back, and what does his response reveal about both of them?
  21. Over the course of the novel, it is revealed that Linda and her parents are the left-behind members of a back-to-the-land-style commune. How does this affect each of Linda's parents? Does Linda seem harmed or helped by her early upbringing? Was it ever clear if Linda belonged to her parents biologically?
  22. When the recount of the trial starts, was it surprising when Linda says she did not go for help or take Paul to the doctor or call 911? Does it seem that Linda should bear any responsibility in Paul's death? Why or why not?
  23. During the trial, did it seem odd to you that Leo and Patra avoided speaking with Linda, or looking at her? Did this indicate they know they did something wrong in not saving Paul? Did they seem to feel remorse for his death?
  24. During a break in the court case, Linda approaches Patra, hoping they are on the same side. Instead, Patra in effect accuses her of contributing to Paul's illness by seeing him as ill. Patra says "You saw him. As sick." (p. 234) Is this the first time Linda realizes what being a Christian Scientist means? Did she think that Leo was totally responsible up until this point? Why does Linda decide to tell the judge and jury that Patra "did nothing" for her son after outlining in her head all the ways in which Paul was adored?
  25. "What's the difference between what you believe and what you do?" (p. 242) Linda thinks this to herself after testifying at the trial, and says she should've asked Patra. There are a lot of situations this question could apply to in the book. Did Patra know that Paul was sick? Did she understand that not taking him to a doctor would result in his death? Did she choose her husband over her son? Why might she have chosen a simpler path in the short term over the long-term safety of her child?   
  26. Religion is an overarching theme of this book. In addition to Linda's commune past, she discusses the flirtation her mother has with various religions and the uncomfortable way she seems to believe in God, and Christian Science shows up when Leo and Patra finally confess their religion to Linda. How does the author use religion to develop each character in the story? What's the difference between how Linda's mother and Leo view their religions? What are some of the effects in this book of well-intentioned belief?
  27. The last chapter of the book is Linda's first day of tenth grade. Paul is dead, and Lily shows up to school pregnant. The final pages Linda spends fantasizing about giving Lily a letter that she wrote, pretending to be Mr. Grierson, and then taking Lily out on the canoe, just like Lily said Mr. Grierson had done. She imagines forcing a kiss on Lily and then becoming Lily, "the one wanted more than anyone else" (p. 275) What is happening in this imagined scene? Why does Linda imagine herself in this scenario with Lily?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Grove Press. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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