Summer of the Wolves
By Polly Carlson-Voiles
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012, paperback 2014
Although Summer of the Wolves is classified as a young adult novel, it’s a fabulous read for adults, too. Set in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Wolves tells the story of a troubled girl and her summer helping to raise a young wolf. As a child, I cried buckets over Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ classic book The Yearling, which was rich in details about its swampy Florida setting and the reality of raising a wild animal. I was reminded of that experience as I read Carlson-Voiles’ warm and well-told story which radiates her deep familiarity with the north woods, wolves and children.
The plot is simple and strong: Nika, a teenaged orphan girl (and her little brother) are unexpectedly uprooted from their foster home in California to live with their Uncle Ian, a wolf researcher who works on the border of Minnesota and Canada. When Uncle Ian rescues a wolf pup found near her mother’s body, Nika learns about the hard work of caring for a wild animal. Carlson-Voiles speaks from experience; she has served as a wolf “nanny” at the International Wolf Center in Ely and her knowledge shines through Nika’s vivid scenes with “Khan,” feeding and caring for the hungry little animal, and learning how to keep a scientific log.
The author includes a coda at the end of each chapter, in which the story shifts to brief vignettes about a mysterious wolf in the wild that has suffered at the hands of humans. The story lines for animals, children and adults merge in a satisfying way at the novel’s end.
The book is alive with the animals of the islands: eagles, cougars, raccoons, and of course, howling wolves. Carlson-Voiles drew on her childhood experiences when she spent summers on Canada’s Rainy Lake and met a “wolf-dog” (part wolf, part dog). Later, she worked with wolf researcher David Mech, observing wolf packs. She now lives outside of Ely and volunteers at the International Wolf Center.
Carlson-Voiles says she spent years working on the novel, but when she hit on combining the wolf story with her experiences working as a secondary Special Ed/English teacher in inner-city Minneapolis and at an adolescent psyche unit, she realized that her story could focus on the instinct for both wolves and humans to form families.
The book is about the power of wild places, she recently told me in a phone conversation. “It’s about nature as a source of healing and attachment,” she said. Through her bond with a young wolf and the feeling of freedom that she discovers on the island, Nika is able to begin to deal with her loss of her parents and have hope for the future.
In a startling coincidence, the publisher chose to illustrate both the hardcover and the new paperback version of the book with a photo of a black wolf that Carlson-Voiles knew well. “For seven years we were privileged to watch her. She was a collared wolf, #955 in a wolf study,” she said. Carlson-Voiles immediately recognized “her” wolf when her Boston publisher showed her the cover design with Ely photographer Steve Foss’ arresting photo.
Summer of the Wolves has won many awards, including the Northeast Minnesota Book Award (NEMBA) and the prestigious Parents’ Choice Silver Honor. Carlson-Voiles is also the author and illustrator for the children’s picture book Someone Walks By: The Wonders of Winter Wildlife, which uses cut-paper art and includes information about how to identify animal tracks in the snow. She’s now working on a nonfiction book for children about the biological origins of wolves and dogs.
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