‘Wolf Hollow’ by Lauren Wolk: Superb middle grade historical fiction

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Rating: 5 stars

“Wolf Hollow” by Lauren Wolk is, on the surface, a beautifully written historical novel about a girl who learns some difficult facts about life and lying. The setting is rural Pennsylvania in 1943, and while the war is raging in Europe, it seems far from this idyllic town with close-knit people who all know each other.

Annabelle lives with her brothers, parents and grandparents in their farm house. In the first sentence of the novel, Wolk sets the tone for the story. “The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.” This story is written in first person narrative which is necessary to the story so that the reader knows what Annabelle is thinking as she navigates a town that fills with prejudice, hatred, and evil because of one person.

Annabelle’s life is pretty uneventful until a new girl comes into town and into her school. Her one-room school house was always a safe haven for Annabelle. Until Betty, who is described as “incorrigible,” arrives. Betty has been sent to live with her grandparents because of vague misdeeds.

And though Annabelle says from the start that she lied, she also makes it clear throughout the story that she very much values the truth. Her grandfather, she explains, always told her the truth no matter how unpalatable.

“He was a serious man who always told me the truth, which I didn’t always want but sometimes asked for anyway. When I asked him how Wolf Hollow got its name, for instance, he told me, even though I was only eight at the time.” Wolf Hollow was where they dug deep pits to catch the wolves, and when the wolves were caught in the pits, they were shot. Even the puppies. When Annabelle expresses her dismay that even the puppies were killed, her grandfather compares the deaths of puppies to that of a copperhead snake recently killed. Annabelle protests that it’s different, that snakes are poisonous. But her grandfather points out, “Not to the snake, it isn’t. Or to the God who made it.”

When Betty, filled with anger, jealousy, and bitterness, comes into Annabelle’s life, she destroys what childhood remained for Annabelle. First she demands money from Annabelle, then beats her. She threatens Annabelle’s brothers. Because of Betty, Annabelle’s best friend loses her eye and moves away.

And worst of all, Betty throws the blame for all the violence on a veteran from WWI, a man suffering from shell shock, who wanders the community with his three guns on his shoulder. This gentle man, Toby, has befriended Annabelle and her family. Her mother leaves food for Toby, and Annabelle gives him the camera that her family won in a contest (a camera and lifetime supply of film and developing). Toby loves the camera and is never seen without it.

When Betty disappears, the town believes that Toby is to blame. Annabelle knows he is not, and she is determined to make things right, even if she must lie over and over again to do so. But for all her good intentions, Annabelle is only twelve years old. She does her best, but her good intentions have a tragic result. No matter how Annabelle tries to save the day, she finds out that sometimes fate has a different idea.

This is a story that is rich with themes for classroom and/or family discussion. Although the publisher says it’s appropriate for grades three through seven, children younger than ten will probably not be able to appreciate or even understand the complexity of the themes that Wolk creates. Family, friendship, loyalty, prejudice, mental illness, evil, bravery, and truth are all important topics that could and should be fully discussed.

The tone of the narrative is also lovely. Wold manages to keep the reader’s interest on each and every page. Even descriptions of the farm life are fascinating and hold the reader’s interest. Who knew that milkweed could be used for flotation devices? And young readers will be fascinated with the idea of a “party line” phone where no one could ever be sure their conversation was private.

This touching story has been compared to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and perhaps it is a similar story told for younger readers. It certainly is a compelling story and one that will have readers — young and old alike — thinking about it a long time after the final page has been turned.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, Putnam, for review purposes.