Thursday, May 17, 2012
TIMBER WOLF by Caroline Pignat
Winner of the Governor General’s Award
Imagine waking up in the middle of the northern Canadian wilderness with no memory of your identity (even your name!), how you got there, or where to find home. Such is Jack’s predicament in the gripping opening of Timber Wolf.
He is wounded, but doesn’t remember the injury. As he struggles to find food, warmth, and shelter in the harsh winter climate, he meets two characters whose friendship has ironically ambiguous overtones: a native youth named Mahingan, filled with anger at the white men, and a silent, yellow-eyed timber wolf, without a pack. The wolf saves him from peril on multiple occasions – bringing him game, dragging him out of a frozen lake, and leading him back to Mahingan’s hut when he is lost. Mahingan, however, resents Jack, even to the point of shooting an arrow into his back.
Bit by bit, through narrative interspersed with dreams, Jack’s memory comes back, first of his father, then of his injury, and finally, of his family. As Mahingan and Jack spend more time together under the influence of Mahingan’s wise grandfather, they (and the readers) realize that the two boys are more alike than they believe: not only have both lost a father, but also both are striving for acceptance in an adult world. In a touching episode near the end of the book, the boys grapple (literally) with their emotions—Jack with guilt and Mahingan with anger. They learn that emotions need release, and their physical fight leads to a sincere friendship. As a reader, I couldn’t decide if the action felt too contrived, but perhaps it would be identifiable for a boy, rather than an adult woman. The elaborate thank you speeches at the close of the book felt just slightly too raw, too emotionally open—perhaps the characters had changed too quickly for my understanding of them to catch up—but here, again, I was on the fence about it.
The brilliant aspect of the book, in my opinion, is the construction of parallel journeys among the characters. Jack walks alongside Mahingan as the boys journey to manhood, and alongside the wolf as the two journey to find their “pack.” As the close of the novel, Pignat skillfully juxtaposes Jack’s reunion with family and the howls of the wolf pack. Jack becomes a man and finds his home because of and with Mahingan and the wolf.
Timber Wolf is the third stand-alone book of the “Greener Grass” series. If they’re all as well done as Timber Wolf, I wish I could read all three!