Let me get this out of the way: I’m deeply envious of Beth Lewis for pulling this off. As you may or may not know, I wish I could actually finish writing a book. I’ve written 6 or 7 first drafts of novels, but editing them into a form that I’m comfortable sharing with the world, even in a self-published version, has proved to be very scary for me. Ms. Lewis, however, has produced in The Wolf Road a spectacular, suspenseful, terrifying, post-apocalyptic romp of a first novel. And I’m jealous of her for it.
The Wolf Road is a book about a young girl. I’ve never been incredibly comfortable with labels regarding types of fiction–especially Young Adult fiction. It’s easy to argue that fiction about young adults automatically makes it YA, and I’m not confident that that’s a good definition. I’m a fan of what is traditionally labeled as YA (in fact, one of the books I’m perpetually editing IS probably YA), but I think labels should be seen as a lot more fluid than they traditionally are.
That said, this almost certainly is NOT Young Adult fiction. There’s too much killing (and worse) here for most young adults, not that lots of young adults wouldn’t really, really enjoy it, content and all. So get the idea out of your head that a book with a young heroine is probably too “young” for you–trust me, it’s plenty mature.
I love this novel. There are elements of it that I’d consider to be horror, there are elements that could almost be considered sci-fi (it DOES take place after a nuclear war, so at least speculative fiction), and there are elements of a traditional road trip story. Of course, the road trip is on foot for the most part, but still. Heck, “road” is even in the title.
Here’s the best content description I can give you without any spoilers. Elka has been raised from a very young age by a man who lives out in the desolate woods of British Columbia, a few decades after a nuclear war has decimated a lot of the infrastructure we take for granted. They live off the land, hunting and surviving the best they can. At a critical juncture in Elka’s life, she finds out a terrifying truth about the man she’s thought of as her father for nearly a decade. She goes on the run, searching for people she barely knows, hundreds of miles from her destination. The joy in the book is in anticipating the last stages of that journey (which Lewis has cleverly shown us from the start of the story), while dreading what is always a few steps behind Elka the entire way. It was a fascinating exercise in dreading simultaneously what lies behind Elka and what lies ahead of her, both geographically and temporally. Lewis pulls it off without a hitch, too, even including a few surprises that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated.
Tonally, I got more than few echoes of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from this book. Elka is the narrator, and her English is very colloquial. Someone I discussed this with said that she has found this to be a slow read, largely due to the dialect Elka’s using throughout. I didn’t find this to be the case, though–it seems commonsense to me, and very linguistically sound. I chalk this up to the focus on phonics in my Kindergarten curriculum, or perhaps the fact that my father has worked as a linguist, or maybe my childhood living overseas and translating conversations in real-time. Regardless, I enjoyed Elka’s use of language, distinctive though it was.
Thematically, I’ve already mentioned how dark The Wolf Road is. There’s a lot of dark content here that’s absolutely necessary to the story. It would be very difficult to survive blizzards and starvation and a lack of other human beings and murderers and law enforcement chasing said murderers and wild animals and bad human beings, and the book accurately portrays that darkness. The darkness is in service to painting a picture, and it’s a pretty bleak picture. But there’s redemption here, as well. There are people doing good things, luminous things, and being self-sacrificing and beautiful to one another. In short, it’s an accurate portrayal of what desperation and hardship can do to people, for better or worse.
I can’t recall many books released in 2016 that I enjoyed reading more than this one. The Wolf Road is thrilling, and I can’t get the word out enough about it. I know it’s not exactly a hidden gem–no book with more than 200 almost-perfect Amazon reviews is “off the radar”–but if you HAVEN’T heard of it, you should really check it out.