Some books are just fun to read.
The events in “Little Wolves” take place during a brutally hot and dry summer in Lone Mountain, a fictional small town in southwestern Minnesota. Author Thomas Maltman weaves together several layers of mystery against a backdrop of Old English literature and riddles — and mystical stories of wolves. The novel compels us to charge from one page to the next in the hope of solving several intersecting mysteries.
Seth is a misfit among his high school classmates, and the whole town feels antipathy toward him, his father, Grizz, and past generations of their family. Seth, however, warms to his long-term substitute English teacher, Clara Warren. She succeeds in reaching his class of low-achieving students because of her personal warmth and love for old Anglo-Saxon literature and mythology. Although they have no relationship outside the classroom, Seth expresses his affection for Clara by leaving anonymous notes, which include inscrutable, original verse and drawings of wolves. Beyond his affection, what is Seth trying to communicate?
Clara is a Ph.D. student who has dropped out of grad school to accompany her husband on his first job as a pastor. She is outgoing and somewhat free-spirited, and her husband’s small-town parishioners regard her with considerable skepticism. Is it a coincidence that Clara and her husband have come to what may be the same town where she spent the first few years of her life? And why does an old woman she meets in Lone Mountain call her “Duchess?”
Early in the book Seth inexplicably murders the local sheriff in broad daylight and then commits suicide. Both his grieving, emotionally distant father and his former teacher are left to wonder why. Was it the result of bad feeling between the two families? Does it have something to do with the rumor that the sheriff had a shack where he punished “burnouts and stoners.” Why did Seth carve the Old English word for “blood debt” in his desk?
What follows is a gripping page-turner in which Maltman skillfully uses flashbacks to reveal details slowly. In some instances the author builds suspense by deliberately holding back key details; in others, the reader learns an important piece of history at the same time the characters do. It all comes together in the end.
Wolves and coyotes play a mythical and symbolic role as the plot unfolds. The “little wolves” of the title are a litter of coyote pups that Seth rescued from his father and then raised until they were mature enough to survive on their own. After his death, why do they come to Clara’s house? Is there a relationship between the alpha male and Seth’s spirit? Does the coyote deliberately force the truck carrying Clara and the sheriff’s son off the road?
Clara remembers fairy tales about wolves her father told her when she was a little girl, including one about a coyote raising a human child and another featuring the fine “wolfish pelt” on a baby girl born prematurely. Are these stories relevant somehow to her uncovering Seth’s reasons for killing the sheriff? And why does she keep hearing Seth’s voice when she barely knew him when he was alive?
There are a lot of loose ends as the story progresses. But Maltman skillfully and gradually reveals Seth’s motivations for killing the sheriff, who was, after all, the father of one of the boy’s few friends. We also participate as Clara learns the truth of her mother’s death and solves the other mysteries surrounding her early childhood. The drama of the plot interplays with the theme concerning wolves, both real and mystical. Whether or not the reader understands the significance of some of the allusions, the resulting combination makes for a novel that is hard to put down.