Jacket copy for Thomas Maltman’s Little Wolves promises a murder mystery in a small town, but after only a few pages I could tell it was much more than that. Getting to the bottom of why Seth Fallon would kill the town’s sheriff and then walk into a nearby cornfield to shoot himself is a compelling mystery, and one that is complicated by why he would have stopped at a teacher’s house before committing his crime, and the factors driving what he does in the first place.
Seth’s father, Grizz Fallon, a hardworking farmer, attempts to get his head around his son’s horrific crime, his own missteps as a parent, the fact that his son is never coming home, and his own lack of desire to continue living, but after receiving a visit from Seth’s old girlfriend, he can’t leave what Seth did, and the disturbing possibilities behind it unresolved. As he looks into the mystery of Seth’s last days,the history of the Fallon family as town pariahs comes to light, as does their place as one of the first families among the German settlers who established the town. They did so at the expense of the Native Americans living there (they were brutally treated and cruelly driven from the land, or even killed), and it casts a pall over the town and contributes to the atmosphere of curses, heartache and foreboding.
Little Wolves alternates between Grizz Fallon’s perspective and that of Clara, a pregnant substitute teacher, popular among her students for the accessibility she brings to their lessons through her colorful stories based in Norse mythology, and of whom Seth was particularly fond. She and her minister husband are new to the town, but as much as they have come for a fresh start and job opportunities, their marriage is troubled. Clara and her husband are expecting a child that he might not necessarily want, and he find the congregation that her serves to be problematic. Clara is absorbed in squaring the town’s rocky past with stories her father told her about her mother, and her origins. As Clara prepares to give birth, she ponders her parents convoluted history, how she met her husband and the part she plays in the town’s latest tragedy.
One of the things that I liked most about reading this novel was its richness, beauty and ambiguity. This isn’t a story that wraps up neatly and it mimics real life in ways that was a marvel to me. The stories that Clara’s father told her may hide the secret of her parentage, or they may be stories told to amuse a child, or they may be a form of revenge. Which is it? And is there really an answer that is clear cut? The town is suffering from drought and stifling resentment among its inhabitants, and juxtaposed with its history, you really wonder if a curse is working its way through their lives. Are they paying for “the sins of the father”? What do any of these bits and pieces have to do with what has happened? Not everything is lines up neatly, but there is enough to hint at the whole in a way that is very satisfying, and the history and stories imparted are equal parts rough, exquisite and sad.
Little Wolves is evocative, beautifully written and steeped in strange tales and tragedy masquerading as and mixed in with rich history and old wounds. I could scarcely put it down. Highly recommended.