There is no shortage of books about bullying out there today. Publishers know this is a relevant topic across the country and it seems that multiple strong works of fiction are released each and every year on the issue. Often times, an author will approach the subject by creating empathy for a character who is being bullied. Usually, the bully learns some acceptance along the way. Sometimes even, an author will attempt to create empathy for the bully, by showing where their behavior stems from.
WOLF HOLLOW is definitely a book about bullying, but it is different than your typical bullying book in a number of ways. For one, the bully in this book is evil to her core. There is no sympathy to be had for Betty. Zero. She is pure evil. Also, the victim in this book doesn’t ever put up with the bullying. She doesn’t learn how to stand up for herself. Annabelle is fighting back from the first moment we’re introduced to her. The lessons Annabelle learns in this story are not just about bullying. And finally, another way this book is different from other bullying books out there, is that it is set in rural Pennsylvania, in 1943. Many bully books are set in modern day, so they can speak to today’s students.
A synopsis: 11-year-old Annabelle’s life is pretty normal in rural Pennsylvania. She works hard to help out on her family farm and watches over her two younger brothers on their trek to school each day. Her life is simple. Until Betty moves to town. Betty is immediately cruel to Annabelle, bullying her out of sight of adults on their way to and from school. Betty’s threats (and later, her actions) prove her to be dangerous and Annabelle begins fearing for her safety. Until she discovers that she has a bodyguard. Toby, a misunderstood, reclusive World War I vet and family friend, is watching from the shadows, protecting Annabelle. However, Annabelle's world is rocked when Betty suddenly goes missing and Toby is suspected of foul play.
You would be hard pressed to find a better written book this year than WOLF HOLLOW. From the structure of the story, to the foreshadowing throughout, down to the individual sentence, Wolk's writing is beautifully descriptive. My first reaction upon finishing it however, was that it was a book written for adults that featured a child narrator. I wasn't shocked when I read up on author Lauren Wolk and learned that she began the story as a novel for adults but changed her mind about its audience later on. I loved the book. I was enthralled by the story. But I couldn't help but wonder if kids would get it. Since then, a 5th grade boy in my class read it as part of a book club at our local public library. He loved it. I saw a 6th grade girl walking down our hallway the other day holding a copy of WOLF HOLLOW in her hands. I called to her, "Isn't that book awesome?!? Isn't Betty just pure evil?!?" The girl's face lit up and she talked a blue streak about the book for 10 minutes! This first hand experience tells me that I needn't be concerned about WOLF HOLLOW's kid appeal!
What had me worried was Wolk's voice. Annabelle is a mature 11-year-old girl. She is responsible and wise beyond her years. There is an edge of maturity in not just her dialogue with other characters but in the way she narrates scenes and shares her thinking. Wolk really trusts her child readers to connect to Annabelle and in the end, I suppose this is easy because like most kids, Annabelle is not perfect. She makes decisions that she probably shouldn't. She reacts from her gut and from her heart and gets herself into trouble. She lies. She hides truths. But she also has compassion. Despite all of Betty's viciousness toward her, Annabelle is compelled to help her in the end. I found myself looking out for Annabelle in a fatherly way as the book reached its climax and resolution. I wanted nothing more than for her life to return to some normalcy.
Another thing that worried me about a child audience was the violence. WOLF HOLLOW isn't necessarily a violent book, but there are times it reminded me of a Martin Scorsese movie. A chapter would be going along, I would get the feeling that Betty would do something bad, and then BAM! Out of the blue, something very, very violent would occur and make me cringe. The violence comes and goes but it is the result of these violent moments that is sad and stays with you. Even for a character as mature as Annabelle, there is a loss of innocence in a few of these violent moments that is heartbreaking. Lives are changed forever because of this evil, evil girl. I wasn't sure if kids could handle this, but in talking with a few, I think they can. I think they need to.
Betty ranks right up there with Hannibal Lecter, Hans Gruber, the Joker, and Lord Voldemort. She is that sadistically bad to the bone. But to say that she gets what is coming to her would still be insensitive of me. The ending of this story is dark and sad. Sorry for the spoiler. There is no happy ending here. Not really. Life will go on for these characters, but not without some deep, deep scars.
I can't say enough about WOLF HOLLOW. The plot is nerve-wracking, the setting is vividly described, and the characters are all richly drawn, even the supporting characters like Annabelle's aunt Lily and Betty's boyfriend Andy. The layered story pulls you in and the beauty of Wolk's writing leaves you in awe.