Title: The Wolf Road: A Novel
Author: Beth Lewis
The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis takes us down a harsh road of survival, of tough truths that could break a person.
It is the first person story of young Elka, a child of the forest, and the rules she has lived by.
Just a girl, her wits and her knife.
And a killer on the loose.
Elka’s parents went digging for gold, leaving the two-year-old with her Nana, her grandmother, who was at best, indifferent, and at worst, abusive. The young child longs for love, for her family, and bides time, waiting for her parents to come for her.
At the age of 7, her world is literally turned topsy turvy when a hurricane (Thunderhead) rips through their town, carrying her out of her grandmother’s home and dropping her into the deep forest. Hungry and desperate, she steals meat that is curing outside a hut. It sets off an alarm and she is caught by the Trapper, Kreagar Hallett. She settles down to living with him, when he returns from a trip to town telling her that her Nana is dead. The years go on.
They get into a rhythm, and he names her Elka because her hair is as coarse as that of an elk. She begins to imagine the two of them as being a family. He never hurts her and is kind to her, in a gruff, standoffish way.
She lives with him until she turns 17, when he allows her to go into town for the first time without him. There she meets Magistrate Lyon, who is looking to arrest and hang Kreagar for having brutally murdered 8 women and 1 child, the last, Lyon’s little son. That is when Elka comes to know of the truth behind the kindness that was lies and masks.
She learns that the man she thinks of as her Daddy, though she never calls him that to his face, is actually a cold, psychopathic killer.
Shocked by this revelation, and struggling with denial, Elka begins to question how she could have missed the sight of Kreagar’s murderous instincts, his bloodthirstiness. At length she realizes that it is because Any lie can turn to truth if you believe it long enough.
Elka makes a dash for the forest, with the intention of going to Halveston, where she imagines her parents have made it big. Along the way, she encounters danger from numerous beasts, both human and animal. The wild too is an adversary to be contended with, besides hunger and thirst, and hallucinations and death.
Chased by a bear, the adrenaline keeps pumping as Elka, half wild and feral herself, tries to escape danger in the wilderness that is the world after the nuclear fallout. She lives by her wits, making friends with a wolf, trying hard to put distance between herself and Kreagar, who is stalking her.
Now it’s a battle of wits and knives between them. She must kill if she is to stay alive, use the skills he once taught her.
The story is set in a post-Apocalyptic world. A nuclear war, known as The Fall or the Reformation (Elka’s grandmother called it the Big Damn Stupid), has destroyed the Old World, setting the world back in time, leaving chaos and disorder behind.
It is a time when everyone is scrounging for gold, for survival, depending on nature, and rebuilding the broken world as best as they could. But there are also strains of a Wild West, filled with adventure, where everything is up for grabs, not unlike the Gold Rush of more than a century ago. It seems like a lawless world and yet, there is the faintest resemblance to a law, re-asserting itself.
The country is known by its initials, BC, giving it a post-disaster kind of feel. One assumes, by the descriptions of the locale and the weather, that this is British Columbia.
We never know her real name. She has forgotten it too, and yet her story resonates with us. She likes to dwell in the here-now rather than the back-then. Her life and the tumultuous things that happen to her, from the Thunderbird to the havoc raised by the other characters, leave her striving to survive at all costs.
Despite being unschooled, Elka has learned her lessons. Living in the wild, she learns that there are many kinds of wild and dangerous, and that some of them appear human but kill for sport.
Her homespun wisdom is sharp. Men got a lot more rules for living than the forest.
One of her rules is Don’t go trusting another man’s path. No matter if that’s a real one trodden into dirt or all of them twists and turns his life has taken.
Another thing she learns thought it doesn’t sound very pretty is Men got one hell of a weakness, and when it ain’t their arrogance, it’s their dangling bits.
Elsewhere No wolf nor bear just gives up when they get beat or hungry. You ever seen a bear jump off a cliff ‘cause life handed him a few rough draws.
And Alive and ugly is better than pretty and dead.
Because we have started at the beginning of the climactic conclusion, we know we are headed towards it. There’s an undercurrent of something dark that throbs beneath the story, ever louder, as it draws to an inexorable conclusion.
This book works wonders with just three characters, Elka, Kreagar and Magistrate Lyon. There are others, but these three hold your attention, Elka most of all.
Elka is willing to make tough choices to survive, but the humane in her trumps the wild, even when there is a price to pay. In her haste, she often does things, that her hindsight tells her, are stupid. Each time a wish is granted to her, it comes with a large accompaniment of trouble.
Elka didn’t let me feel sorry for her. I liked that. Even when her Nana wasn’t very nice to her, she was like a female Tom Sawyer, hating the schooling and the culturing. All the same, my heart ached for her, for the strength she derived from some simple words in her mother’s letter written to her Nana years ago: Tell my little girl, I love you.
Kreagar Hallet, a man with a voice that was like rubbing bone on bark. Sharp, cruel, meant to cut, to hurt.
Magistrate Lyon is almost sexless in her single-minded desire to string Kreagar for his crimes.
Each of the minor characters edge this story along. Mathews, James Everett Colby, Stanley Bilker, scum and scoundrel, and father and son, Mark and Josh Thompson.
The doctor is a minor character who makes an impression for the events that meeting with him precipitate. As does Wolf, whose friendship with Elka saves her from destruction.
I was also grateful for Penelope, for the bruised yet healing friendship that grew between her and Elka.
The writing is real, urgent, thrusting us in the face of danger. It builds word pictures and we learn about people without being told. That Kreagar’s teeth are like gravestones.
Elka’s story follows its own grammar but you get used to it. It feels fragmented but harks back to the harsh setting and the period. The language is raw and intense, the incorrect tense adding to the tautness.
She gives us her story in bits and spurts, the details spilling out, proving their worth later pages later, rewarding our memories.
Beyond the adventure, it raises questions of morality, of doing as we were done by, of how we all need kindness and of how we’re all predators and prey in different situations.
The ending, I will warn you, was shocking, hard hitting. I wished it was different. It filled me with an ineffable sadness. I wished there could have been redemption for Elka, that she didn’t have to strive for salvation every day.
I strongly recommend The Wolf Road. Reader, if I could reach out and shake you and force you to read this book, I would. Few heroines have touched me the way Elka did.
I’m sure you’ll say the same.
(I received a free digital copy of this book from First To Read.)