‘Little Wolves’ by Thomas Maltman

On the Minnesota prairie in the late 1980s, in a small farming community pushed to the brink by drought, a teenage boy shoots a local sheriff dead.  

The shooting haunts two people: the boy’s father, an outcast in the town, and the boy’s teacher, an early Anglo Saxon literature scholar and wife of a newly arrived pastor, who has secrets of her own.

A penetrating look at small-town America from the award-winning author of The Night Birds, this book weaves together literary elements of folklore and Norse mythology while being driven by a riveting murder mystery.

‘Little Wolves’ is a bleak, dark, book, permeated with a sense of inevitable doom. It’s filled with violence, abuse, death, deception, torture and oppression. The writing style felt a little self-consciously literary at times and seemed to be reaching for a deeper meaning beneath the story which I wasn’t convinced by. The narrative is deeply, sometimes disturbingly, realistic but is laced with references to Norse myths, the nature of monsters and the heroes who battle them, the inescapability of fate and a belief in the reality-shaping power of storytelling.

Set in a small, failing town on the Minnesota prairies in 1987, it starts with a troubled teenager shooting the local sheriff with a sawn-off shotgun and follows the impact the killing has on the boy’s father and the boy’s teacher. The teacher is the preacher’s wife, newly arrived, newly married, newly pregnant, haunted by old myths learned from her father about her absent-since-her-birth mother and hungry to discover her origins and root herself. The father of the boy is a struggling local farmer, widower and social outcast with a long-standing enmity with the sheriff. Both the main characters are outsiders with complicated views of the world, and trauma in their past that has twisted their belief in their agency over their own lives.

This is not a conventional drama where the reader is focused on working out how the hero will overcome overwhelming odds and right all the wrongs. Here, the heroes seem cursed, doomed to come face to face with monsters who will do them harm. Hope is replaced by stubborn endurance. Righting wrongs is replaced by the possibility of survival.

The town and the people in it are, for the most part, deeply unpleasant and entirely believable. The violence and anger and oppression that sits just beneath the surface of the social life of this failing town owes nothing to the supernatural and everything to a culture hierarchical culture dominated by violent men and sustained by a consensual silence about how the town works and a collective investment in an alternative narrative in which everything is fine.

There were points in this book when I became completely absorbed in the writing and in the disclosed pasts of the two main characters but there were other points when I felt that it was over-written and over-structured. It reminded me of one of those neo-gothic Scottish Baronial style castles that the Victorians built, look at them one feature at a time and you can admire each turret, medieval arch and mullioned window but when you look at the building as a whole it lacks authenticity.

I got the sense that Thomas Maltman has a strong dislike of rural, Lutheran-dominated small towns and the gap between how life works and how it is described. This book seemed like a way of taking a fresh look at the things he dislikes.

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