Katherine Rundell takes the typical fairytale by the hand and dances it around a bonfire to the music of balalaikas and howling wolves.
The latest work from acclaimed novelist Katherine Rundell, this circa 2015 middle-grade novel takes its readers and harnesses their wildest imaginations as they’re placed directly in the heart of a “dark and stormy girl” – Feodora Petrovna – a girl-cub who untames wild things and is wanted by the tsar’s most draconian general. The Wolf Wilder has met with cheers from critics and readers alike, and already has a multitude of accolades to its credit, including a place on the Maine Book Award Master List and its recent listing as one of the Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year for 2016.
Feo is a born and raised wolf wilder who has spent as much time with wolves as she has with people. Superstition says it’s lucky, and society deems it fashionable, for the upper classes to have pet wolves, but, as Feo knows from years of well-tuned expertise, these are animals with strong spirits and wild hearts who “are not born to lead calm lives.” They are not meant to be found in ritzy drawing rooms of St. Petersburg or eating flicked caviar from the dining room floor of an aristocrat. A wolf needs space, adventure, a place to run, and a place to set free its fierce howl, and this is precisely what Feo and her mother train wolves to do once they’ve been abandoned by their former families to the Petrovnas’ cabin steps. But when the tsar’s army gets involved with the wilding practice, and Mama is confined to a precarious fate in the St. Petersburg prison, Feo must set the world right again with the help of a ragtag group of friends – the wolves Grey, Black, and White, and the deserter-dancer Ilya. She and her makeshift pack set out to navigate the uncertain edges of adventure and danger as they brave winter’s mercurial moods and the ruling fist of a tyrant whose heart alone could freeze what’s left of all the vodka.
The story’s pace runs swiftly to keep the reader in the eye of the adventurous whirlwind. However, it isn’t plot alone which captivates the reader. Rundell charms words and phrases into lines that leave enchanting impressions upon her audience with their quirky turns of phrase, original analogies, and colorful descriptions shown through Feo’s imaginative eye. Feo views snow as “the most talkative weather there is” and tells the wolf Tenderfoot: “You’re very beautiful, you know, but you have the instincts of a carpet.” This presiding style does exert a noticeable indistinctness on the dialogue, as what could be strong, individualized voices to complement the multi-faceted cast takes on a certain uniformity (for example, the resister Alexi, in a rather Feo fashion, describes Rakov thusly: “You could use his soul as a skating rink”). However, the playful nature of the speech compensates for the conversational conformity. Flurries of light-hearted humor provide a pleasant counterbalance to a story which contends with the sinister forces of General Rakov and takes place at the brink of the Russian revolution, as its plucky presence replicates the spirit of Feo’s pack and helps to show the importance of grace and good nature in trials, proving the old adage about dark clouds and silver linings.
Details of the journey Feo takes indicate a high level of research, and the book is likely to be appealing to a variety of readers with its vivid, historical setting, the detailed interactions with wolves, and the survival prowess of Feo and Ilya which is readily shown as the two create compasses out of bark and pine needles and waterproof their shoes with homemade concoctions of wood, soap, and ash. Even details about traditional Russian ballet are precise, well-placed, and informative. After finishing the novel, young readers will see that they’ve learned quite a bit about the tumultuous environment of early 20th century Russia as well as wolves through the engaging (and entertaining) plot.
The Wolf Wilder illustrates how determination and a strong spirit are sure-fire ingredients to turning impossibilities into conquests. The self-reliance of Feo and her companions, their fortitude in the face of adversity, and their creative schemes to thwart the diabolical antagonism of injustice exemplify the boundless possibility that is found in each and every person as well as the sheer insurmountable force of collaboration. The Wolf Wilder has much to offer readers as history, fantasy, adventure, and survival harmonize together in this lupine remix of fairytales and folklore.
Assistant fiction editor Genevieve Smith was born in Big Rapids, raised in Grand Rapids, and now lives in Nisula, Michigan when she isn’t away to school. She is a junior at Lake Superior State University where she double-majors in Creative Writing and Communication and minors in Art. Her interests are largely literary, but those involving neither books nor pencils include decorating cakes and playing the piano.