You read it in the headlines for a few days; it crops up on the newsfeeds. A troubled youngster with a checkered past snaps, killing someone else and then himself and it’s so sad, so sad. When it happens in a small town, it is no more tragic but perhaps the wound cuts deeper because it touches everyone.
Such a story unfolds in prairie town Lone Mountain, Minnesota. The high school loner, son of the town’s pariah, takes a sawed off shotgun and kills the local sheriff, then goes into a corn field and shoots himself. Such a tragedy, but it could have been so much worse! He had stopped at the home of his high school English teacher, but she had not answered the door; some kind of premonition had kept her still and hidden as he passed by. And he had so much ammunition – how many more may have died on that hot, parched day? Such a tragedy!
Yet the true tragedy is hidden, hinted at in a boy’s scribbled drawings suggested by images wrought in lessons of Beowulf and ancient traditions; traditions that still linger in this small, struggling town full of farmers of European descent.
Clara Warren has her own secrets to unravel. She had taken the long term substitute teaching job at the high school after following her husband to Lone Mountain, he being the new Lutheran pastor on his first parish assignment. In the second trimester of her first pregnancy, Clara is touched by strange dreams and ghostly images, piqued by her interrupted linguistic studies and heightened by mysteries surrounding her own birth. She had, in fact, urged her husband to take this assignment, believing in a tenuous idea that this place was linked to her own beginnings, and would provide answers to questions surrounding her mother’s death in a blizzard as she fled some unknown threat with her tiny daughter in tow. A phantom mother who her father refused to discuss throughout her childhood and to his death.
She had realized she could see her mother, this woman whose memory her father denied her, but only when he wasn’t near, so she kept running away. She didn’t consciously mean to hurt him. Each time she ran away, the weather changed, as if her father had the power to call down storms. And each time he came to find her, no matter what it cost him physically. He didn’t ask questions nor did he scold her. For a long time after he died Clara had the sense of him out there, still searching for her, trying to keep her safe. The dead carve out a space inside us, taking up residence like a man stepping under a willow tree in the rain to sit beside the ghost of our former selves. In this manner each of us is haunted, and who would have it any other way?
Clara seems to have been the only person capable of reaching lonely Seth Fallon, a boy who the other students – and teachers – loathed and feared. A big boy, a dark boy, hunched over, sullied by the taint of the whispers that followed his father, also a large, dark man who had taken to dulling his senses with drinking, living on a broken down farm outside of town, pulled in, isolated, angry. Seth had responded to the stories of violence and retribution conjured up in the Anglo-Saxon text of the mighty yet ultimately tragic hero, which Clara had sung to the class in Old English, attempting to capture the students’ imaginations.
“Do you know what language that was?” she asked the silent room. “What story was I telling?” A few mouths gaped; she had their attention. She walked the room and began to speak of it, a kingdom under siege, the nightly terror in the mead-hall. The class went on and they opened their books and dived into the text itself, but it was the stories and songs and legends they wanted. The words and mysteries and how inside the words they spoke every day they carried the memory of this lost world. How it was said that Hitler’s troops fought so hard at the end of World War II because deep in their icy German hearts they remembered Ragnarok, and the end of the world. The gods at war with frost giants, men at war with the gods, even the women as Valkyries riding in on shrieking clouds to pick out the heroic dead. After class that first day, Seth paused at the door and showed his teeth when he smiled. “Neat trick,” he said before ducking under the door into the churn of bodies in the hallway.
Now Seth was gone, leaving Clara to wonder if she could have done more for this dark yet sensitive boy, who had left anonymous notes for her, and had given her talismans to protect her from evil. Seth had also lost his mother early, something he had confided to her once after class, from lupus, a disease he also carried. She had not seen the fatalism that afflicted him, even after he told he how he couldn’t understand from the stories she taught them the point of “living even when you know it’s all going to shit, no matter what you do.”
Yet even after Seth’s death, the mysteries widen. Images of Seth continue to haunt Clara, as do the thoughts that she hides from her struggling husband. Grizz, Seth’s father – a man with more than his share of tragedy already – discovers the word “wergild” carved into his son’s desk; the word denotes a blood debt. Seth’s also-outcast girlfriend tells him cryptically “There are things you don’t know,” and shares with him rumors of a remote cabin where the sheriff would take people to punish them, and hints that Seth was taken there after the boy acted out at school, but she is scared away before he can question her further. And a trio of young coyotes – little wolves – that Seth had watched over since their birth have returned to the edges of the town, growing more aggressive as days pass.
In Little Wolves, author Thomas Maltman has woven a haunting tale of loss and regret, of incomplete lives beaten down and yet still capable of great beauty and strength of character. This book is so much more than a small town whodunit; its evil lies latent in many forms and the darkness unfolds under a wide open sky, its heroism will never be lauded in songs, its myths will ever be hidden away and spoken of only in whispers. Losses are and will continue to be harbored for generations. Yet it compels us to recognize the great ethos of continuance, even when confronting horrors handed down from parent to child; even when you know it’s all going to shit, no matter what you do.