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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

What We Lose and Mourning With Those Who Mourn

In this regard I find myself dubious about the politics of women’s peace groups, for example, which celebrate maternality as the basis for engaging in antimilitarist work. I do not see the mother with her child as either more morally credible or more morally capable than any other woman. A child can be used as a symbolic credential, a sentimental object, a badge of self-righteousness. I question the implicit belief that only “mothers” with “children of their own” have a real stake in the future of humanity.
I don't have a lot of experience with grief. Friends of mine have died, but each time it has been after an extended period in which I hadn't seen them. At one point, Tony was one of my three or four closest friends, but I hadn't seen him in nearly a decade when I found out he'd overdosed and died. His funeral was weird and uncomfortable; it was held in a church that he hadn't attended in probably twenty years and filled with people who had probably never set foot in a chapel before. His sister gave a lovely talk, and the bishop who clearly never knew him doled out boilerplate platitudes that hopefully comforted the believers, but probably gave little to the majority of the attendees. I didn't envy the guy's position, but wished he'd spoken less.

One of Tony's close friends stood to talk, but was overcome by emotion and just sat down. Later my friends and I had a little party where we told stories about him and walked to the gully where we used to play and scattered a small bag of his ashes. I hope that the friends he'd made later in his life all had a chance to get together, too. Looking at his Facebook page it was clear he'd made an impact on their lives and they were suffering badly. In their messages I saw a lot of the same things I knew about him. He didn't judge anyone. He was emotionally available. He was funny. He liked to look straight in your eyes and get frickin' deep about something and wouldn't let you laugh it off.

I remember him introducing me to Rage Against the Machine in his basement and telling me what the machine was and explaining who burning guy on the cover was. Another time he decided to become a vegetarian, shortly after we went to a local concert and he disappeared for a while. He showed up a few hours later saying that on a whim he'd jumped onto a freight-train, depression-era hobo style, and jumped off near a McDonalds and ate the biggest hamburger they made, then he walked back. He would get mad that we all had a crush on his sister.

The news hurt bad, but it still struck far away from me. Like when I saw on Facebook that a work friend from years back had been t-boned at a stoplight, or when several acquaintances from high school committed suicide in the same year. I wasn't there among their family when it happened. I didn't watch it happen over months or years. There was a hole in my life, but not one that hit me every day.

Three of my grandparents have died, one of whom died pretty young of pancreatic cancer when I was a young teen. When we were waiting for my Grandma's diagnosis our family decided to hold a fast for her. Among LDS people, a fast usually lasts two meals and you don't eat or drink. The idea is that you want something extra badly and so you sacrifice to get it, also when you haven't eaten your body is weakened, which is supposed to heighten spirituality. Obviously we wanted the diagnosis to be good, but also we wanted to be comforted if it was bad.

I was at church that day, and someone found a big bottle of stale sprinkles and I kept eating them. I couldn't figure out why they were so delicious until I realized that I was starving, and then I realized why. I felt pretty awful about breaking my fast, but had honestly forgotten. Surely the God I believed in wasn't going to take away some of the strength of all of our prayers because a teenager forgot for a minute and ate some handfuls of sugar, corn syrup (which is also sugar I think?), corn starch, and food-grade wax (gross).

The diagnosis was bad and she went fast. One day, I think it was the Easter party, my cousins and I were playing tag or something and my mom asked us to play on the other side of the house so that Grandma could watch us play through the window. The memory that sticks with me every time I think of my healthy grandma is my sisters and I finding an old unopened Alvin and the Chipmunks card game in the basement and asking her if we could open it. She read the instructions and taught us how to play. I don't remember if the game was good, but was amazed that you could learn to play a game by reading the instructions. Up until then I thought of games like they were oral tradition; someone just knew the rules and we didn't question how. I thought every grandma kept a box of foil-wrapped Ding Dongs in their freezer, just for grandkids.

Both of my wife's parents have passed away, and in those cases the grief was more immediate and awful, but I feel like those stories aren't mine to tell. Watching her go through the death of two parents in such a short span was gut-wrenching, and being unable to do anything about it made me feel useless.

The weirdest part of grief for me is how everyone else's life just goes on when your own seems to be in tatters. I would run errands for my wife and there were cars on the road of people just going to work and yoga and shopping or whatever. The checkers at the store had their own problems and seemed completely unaware that a family had lost its matriarch. It makes you want to scream at the teens jostling around and joking in front of you; "don't you know that people are sad today?"

We don't do that because it would never stop. There are always sad people. While we post pictures of our Christmas dinners and happy kids with toys and sleepy parents who had to wake up too early because Santa came, or families in matching pajamas, someone is mourning. I have a friend who catalogs all of the local deaths on Christmas day. Each headline is the story of someone for whom the most wonderful time of the year is now a constant reminder of their loss.

What We Lose calls itself a novel, but it feels more like an autobiographical braided essay. I'm not sure what is true or made up in here, but it doesn't matter. Clemmons wrote it immediately after her own mother's death, and the emotions are so raw that it's a little uncomfortable sometimes. It seems rare to sit in grief when it's so urgent and the wounds are still so open. Her ability to capture that is a pretty amazing feat.
Loss is a straightforward equation: 2 - 1 = 1. A person is there, then she is not. But a loss is beyond numbers, as well as sadness, and depression, and guilt, and ecstasy, and hope, and nostalgia - all those emotions that experts tell us come along with death. Minus one person equals all of these, in unpredictable combinations. It is a sunny day that feels completely gray, and laughter in the midst of sadness. It is utter confusion. It makes no sense.

Thandi, the main character, bounces around in both time and topic. Sometimes she discusses the crime rate in South Africa (complete with graphs), others she talks about love and race. As a South African immigrant to the United States, she straddles the middle ground that's talked about in a lot of the books I've read. She feels like she doesn't belong anywhere.
I've often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe. Even while you're out in public, feeling fine and free, inside you cannot shake the feeling of rootlessness. Others may even envy you, but this masks the fact that at night, there is nowhere safe for you, no place to call your own.
The bananas thing to me about grief isn't that it seems like it sticks around for a long time, it's that people ever move on. I think about last spring when a mother and a bystander drowned trying to save a 4-year old child from a river near where I live. The mom left four kids, the bystander didn't know the family and left behind a wife. Honestly I don't know how people come back from that.

We were crushed this year when our beloved cat died. Going downstairs and telling my kids, especially the daughter whose bed our little kitty slept in every night, was one of the hardest dad things I've had to do yet. The other night I was looking under my bed for some chapstick or something and thought I saw her looking out at me, just like she used to (which was against the rules and she knew it). I can't imagine what it's like to lose a child. And someone loses one every day.
I realized that that was how heartbreak occurred. Your heart wants something, but reality resists it. Death is inert and heavy, and it has no relation to your heart's desires.
I don't really have a hopeful ending for this. I don't think that's the point. The frustrating thing about grief to me is that I never know how to help someone who is going through it. There's so much terrible stuff we tell people who have lost a loved one: "God needed them more than you did," "they're in a better place," "actually it's kind of blessing if you think about it." We want them to feel better because their hurting makes us uncomfortable when what they need is someone to mourn with them.

Here's a great illustration by BrenĂ© Brown.

I think that What We Lose does well is to bring us down in that hole. It points out how useless it is to ask someone who is hurting, "What can I do to help?" We need to know what it's like to hurt, and some of us have never had to hurt like that and we have no idea what it's like. If your best friend who you had brunch with yesterday and was your number one source of emotional support died today, my story about my old friend dying is the closest I have to what you're going through, and there is no comparison.
This was the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me? The question was so enormous that I could see only my entire life, everything I know, filling it.
We don't just grieve when people die. We mourn lost friendships, we pine for the days before health problems have changed our lives, we hurt for children and friends who have undergone a trauma that will change their lives forever. And we're all so bad at helping (I have been terrible about it). Maybe you're like me when you read the inside of this book jacket and think, "I don't want to read about someone's mom dying." It's not fun, but if we really want to help someone it's necessary. And to do that, we need to be able to crawl into that hole with them. It'll make sense if you watch the video.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Akata Warrior and a Very Important Instruction at the End

Overconsumption is a universal human trait,” Orlu pointed out. “And so is ignorance. - Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Warrior
I'm told that beards are going out of style, which I guess is a shame because the brief period in which they were was the only time I can think of when I was in style. It's also a shame if I decide that being in style is something I'd like to continue pursuing now that I've tasted the delicious savor of looking like the guys in men's magazines, if only between the bottom of my nose and the top of my Adam's apple. Because folks, I hate shaving.

I do shave, though, and daily. I was in a creative writing class once and there was a guy in our class who only wrote fiction in the Star Wars universe. Not only that, but the entirety of his fiction was based on his campaign in a dungeons and dragons-style pen and paper role-playing game. That's all fine, by the way, if you're someone who likes to write but hates even the prospect of being able to collect money for said writing. But he was also kind of mean. He would just tear apart everyone else's writing while refusing to accept any critique of his because nobody else understood what he was doing.

It should probably go without saying at this point that this man had a neck beard. Years later, when I first heard "neckbeard" as short-hand for the kind of guy who sits in his basement and writes multiple-page-long screeds about women not liking nice guys, I lost my mind with laughter. His single status is not a result of, as many of us would have guessed, his never leaving the basement; instead it's because women only like men who are awful and he refuses to let himself sink to that level. He is noble, this man, and his only requirement is for a woman to like Star Wars, but understand that she could never like Star Wars like he does (also she must be fit, beautiful, low-maintenance, never wear makeup, cook well, and understand her role in the relationship, which is to say she will give everything and will never receive anything of meaning in return).

Is shaming men with hair on their necks OK? No. Is it OK if he is also the kind of man who also spends hours online telling women that they should shave their legs daily? I submit to you that it is not only OK, but in fact the only way through this dark period in each of our lives that starts about halfway through kindergarten and ends at death. When I'm not sure where your nose hair ends, your mustache begins, or am sickly fascinated by the fact that there seems to be no delineation between beard hair and chest hair I think your opinion is less valuable.

There are times in my life where the only way to break myself of a bad habit is to see how I look from the outside when I meet or talk to someone with the same or similar habit. I felt like pretty hot stuff writing a novel during national novel writing month until I went to an event at the local library and saw another dozen people doing the same thing. Where I was thinking of myself in a tweed jacket and a pipe banging out a masterpiece, seeing the sweaty, desperate people just like me writing out pages and pages of words only a mother could pretend to enjoy deflated me a bit.

My creative writing friend from college with his gross black hair trailing down his neck like an advancing army of Sith warriors from the Old Republic made me touch a hand to my own nerf-herder scruff and reevaluate my life. Since then I have at least been able to keep it clean neck-wise, but I've sure hated it. I cut myself all of the time, which reminds me of a time when I went on a date as a teen. Like most of my social outings, it consisted of a free movie at the theater where I worked. We walked in, I said hi to people I worked with, and at some point in the movie I scratched my neck and found a wad of toilet paper I'd used to stop the bleeding of a now-routine shaving nick. I asked my date, annoyed, why she hadn't pointed it out, and she said it was to see how I reacted when I found out. She wanted to see if I had a sense of humor about embarrassment. It was a test I failed.

All of this dovetails into a goal I've had for the last six months or so that I'm trying to double down on as we enter the arbitrary frontier known as a "new year." That goal is to be an adult about stuff. Like all good goals it has very few measurable qualities and at no point will I know that I've accomplished anything, but the general gist of it is asking myself if the thing that I am doing or I am about to do is something an adult would do. It sounds awful, but it really isn't. It doesn't mean don't be silly, or go down waterslides, or laugh when a baby is clearly pooping in his diaper but is trying to be chill about it. It means taking stock of my day-to-day decisions and deciding if they are going to leave me in a better or worse place afterward.

I'm not sure if it's a generational thing or it's just more obvious to me because I'm living through it, but I feel like men my age figured out who they were at 16 or so and have just stayed there. Their hobbies and sensibilities and maturity level don't seem to have increased much since then. I'm including myself in that camp. When I was 16 the main thing people knew about me was that I like Mountain Dew. That was a stupid way to define myself then, and it's even more obnoxious now. It reminds me of an old co-worker who, at 50, still quotes Fight Club like the satirized viewpoint of its main characters' toxic masculinity is a relevant and even remotely valid point of view.

Here are some upshots of these decisions: I've stopped collecting old video games and have slowly replaced much of my video game time with reading good, solid, weighty books. I pay closer attention to how I dress given the circumstances I'm dressing for. I noticed how little soda the people I tend to look up to consume and am trying (this one is the hardest one, you guys) to cut down. I'm learning how to improve my cooking. What I've found over and over is that with a little extra effort and some learning curve, there are better and more satisfying ways to do everything. The newest addition is this: I'm trying to shave like a man.

See, for Christmas I got a starter set for a safety razor style shaver instead of the eight-blade disposable jobbies all over the place. Honestly up until now I thought the only use for razor blades anymore were to hide them in your mouth so that you can cut yourself out of a jam when you get captured. Instead of using the gel and quickly shaving in the shower and then dealing with bumps and ingrown hairs that make it a misery, I'm now whipping up shaving cream with a brush like Mad Men Man got for father's day that one time. I'm using aftershave, which up until now I assumed only existed so that novelists could lazily evoke memories of their fathers.

Not a sponsored post. Yet. Call me, you guys.

Like so many things I learned to do poorly as a teen (sleeping, eating, talking to human beings) and have spent decades attempting to do the right way, shaving this way is harder but better. For example, my whole life I've been taught to shave against the grain because that's how you get a closer shave. That's wrong! When you do that you shave under your hairs and that creates those ingrown hairs that suck so bad. Also, when you start paying attention to how the hair on your face and neck grows, you realize that it's going in all kinds of directions. You guys I haven't even started shaving my face yet and already just on my neck I'm dealing with four different directions. For someone who approaches every 4-way stop with the trepidation that should be reserved for only the biggest of decisions, it is a daunting undertaking.

Another benefit is instead of furtively cleaning up that nasty neckbeard in the shower, I'm doing this whole routine in front of a mirror which forces me to consider my current level of fitness in a way that is profoundly disappointing. I'm all for body positivity, my dudes, but that's for other people. Your boy has decided that if he's going to be shaving in front of a mirror for this long, luxurious regimen, he's gotta get cut so it's not so grody up in there.

I'm still getting the hang of it, but that's the whole point I'm trying to make. I think that so many of the things that make modern life modern give us 70% of the quality in exchange for removing the learning curve. The best example of this is cooking. Since being diagnosed with kidney disease I've learned how to make my own sauces, stocks, and soup bases. I've grown more of my own food every year since my first garden. Once you put in some initial work, though, the effort is about the same as the crappy alternative and the outcome is significantly better. Like, how can someone call no-bake cheesecake the same thing as the baked kind? There should be a law against that. It's obscene.

I learned how to braise, you guys
I get so mad about that cheesecake thing.

Anyway, the value of obtaining of knowledge is one of  the things that stuck with me about Akata Warrior. It's in Akata Witch, too, but I didn't think about it as much. If you remember from my last review and also from the book which you inevitably read because I said it was good, you'll recall that people who can use juju are called Leopards, and those who can't are called Lambs. In the Leopard world the only form of currency comes from obtaining knowledge. It's called chittim and it falls at your feet whenever you do learn something new. This could be from reading or someone explaining something to you, but is most often earned by doing something you didn't know you could do.

I was super fascinated with this idea as I powered through this wonderful, wonderful book and loved the idea that there was an immediate tangible reward for knowledge gained. In real life there is, too, it's just not as quick. Further complicating matters, there are a million different ways now to circumvent the gaining of knowledge for something that's almost as good and just happens to make someone else rich. From bread makers to frozen dinners to bagged salad, someone is happy to charge you extra to ensure that you don't learn the skills that they've convinced you that you don't need to have but were at one point considered vital.

I said that Akata Witch was a lot like Harry Potter. That wasn't a bad thing, but it's also impossible to ignore. Akata Warrior is its own book in every way. Once the initial world-building is in place, it gives Okorafor the chance to really explore in a way that is, to me, profoundly deeper than the Potter universe ever does. It's clear that with this book we're only getting the briefest glimpse of what the world she's created is and does, and unlike a lot of books and movies that dig deeper into unique fantasy worlds, it doesn't fall apart with further exploration.
"Leopard People read books by everybody and everything. We look outside and inside. But you have to be secure with yourself to do either..."
Sunny, after defeating a serial killer attempting to bring Ekwensu, one of the biggest and worst masquerades into the world, is starting to see visions of a city in ruins. She assumes it's the end of the world that the return of Ekwensu will bring about, starting with oil spills in the Niger delta and followed by mass fires. While that threat looms, she's also dealing with a brother who has gotten involved with a nasty gang, a freaky djinn, and some friction between her fellow warriors. It's all way fun and imaginative and was a great post-holiday read.

Anyway, that's my thing this week. Learn something new that improves your life in a way you can physically touch. Replace the quick way with the right way. Google how to bake banana bread, or better yet, use my favorite recipe. Make this roast chicken. It's one million times better than the rotisserie chicken at Costco and the stock it makes will improve everything you cook with it. Learn to knit. Take up carpentry. Bake me a cheesecake. The options are endless as long as you definitely do that last one.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

History of Wolves, Kids, and Wetlands

Maybe there is a way to climb above everything, some special ladder or insight, some optical vantage point that allows a clear, unobstructed view of things. Maybe this way of seeing comes naturally to some people, and good for them if it does. - Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves
I feel like 80% of the books I read have a blurb about "coming of age" on their back, and still I don't know what it means. My guess is that any book that features a teen but isn't for teenagers qualifies. If I were forced to come up with a definition, I'd guess that it means the point when a human being makes the transition from thinking that the world is a relatively safe and wholesome place to finding out that oh my gosh it is not. Please do not force me to make this or any other decision my life is stressful enough as it is.

I think about this a bunch because I have a 15 year old and my guess is that some of the messed up garbage I read in these books have happened to him or someone he knows personally and that's maybe the scariest thing I've thought about in my adult life. It's even worse thinking that it's probably similar for my 11 year old and maybe even my 9 year old. My kids live a pretty sheltered life; they don't watch a lot of TV, don't have phones or social media, and even PG-13 movies and T-rated video games are screened by one or both of their parents before our kids see them. I'm not saying that's the only way to raise kids, just how we do. I remember being in 4th grade and having kids tell me plot points from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies that gave me nightmares but they seemed fine about it and probably aren't serial killers (probably).

Recently I helped in my daughter's 6th grade classroom during a party, and was reminded again at how vastly different the backgrounds are for various kids and how bananas it is that we put them all in the same room and expect them to behave the same. Class sizes are large in Utah, with an average of 25 per class in elementary schools compared to a national average of 16. In my kids' school, it's even higher than that. Child Protective Services estimates that the rate of child neglect or abuse is 9.2 in 1,000, which translates roughly to one kid for every one hundred. In my kids' school, that's one per grade.

And those are only the reported cases. It's estimated that one in four kids goes through some form of maltreatment in their life. Of those, 78% is neglect, 18% physical abuse, and 9% sexual abuse. If you're reading this and like me were lucky enough to not experience any of that but still thought that school was hard and sometimes terrifying, just imagine what it's like for a kid who is hungry, afraid, or emotionally traumatized. I honestly can't. 

What I've learned is that you can't just look at a kid and know that he or she is going through something that even us adults wouldn't be able to handle. I knew kids in high school who came from rich families and dressed like the only clothes they had were found in Eddie Vedder's dumpster. I also knew kids who were scrupulously clean and only wore designer clothes who sometimes didn't see their parents for days and ate cold spaghettios for dinner some nights and nothing others.

When I volunteer at the domestic violence shelter, a lot of the time I'm playing with kids. That sounds tough, but it isn't. It's actually super fun. Most of the time you'd never know that they'd been exposed to abuse of some kind; they're just regular kids. Some of them look unkempt and have messy hair (like my kids sometimes), and sometimes they look really skinny, but others look like they are always either on their way to or from a photo shoot for a sponsored post on a mommy blogger's Instagram. Sometimes they might be clingy or grumpy or whatever, but guess what? So are mine. I'd be willing to bet that unless they are licensed therapists, anyone who claims they can tell a child is in an abusive relationship just by looking at them has probably sent at least a thousand dollars to a Craigslist scammer at some point, too.

We complain a lot about kids growing up too fast and a lot of us parents spend much of their time trying to preserve the innocence of our young kids. Most of us have spent some time looking through pictures of our children, starting with when they were babies up until whatever age they are now, and watched their smiles fade over time. When they were toddlers everything was a delight and they laughed and laughed and the only time they cried was because their little cheeks hurt sometimes from smiling too much. They seem so sad now, we think. The light in their eyes is faded. Their shoulders sag from the combined weight of too much homework in their backpacks and the knowledge that the only time people care about fairness anymore is when billionaires expect something in return for their campaign contributions.

I wonder if the tragedy is two-fold for us. Like, on the one hand it's so sad to watch these little happy monsters whose sole existence is filled with joy while reality dawns on them. But also we're faced with the knowledge that we couldn't fix it. We're the adults now and it's still not safe out there and it feels even less safe sometimes and that's happening on our watch.

That's depressing as crap. But this wouldn't be the HBC if we stopped there. The good part is that you and I still experience joy on the regular. Somehow in spite of all the headlines and horrible stories we read here in Howie's Book Club of which you are a member just for reading (you're welcome), we still experience awe and wonder and intense love and super funny memes. Sometimes my cheeks still hurt from smiling too much, like both times I've watched Thor: Ragnarok.
As a habitat biologist, one of my main goals for ecosystems is resilience. A resilient ecosystem is one that can be flooded, burned, dried, buried in snow, or any other number of natural disasters and still thrive. Healthy environments are, by definition, resilient. It's why sometimes you might go hiking with me and remark on how beautiful it is and get a lecture in return about how precarious that beauty is. "Don't fall in love with those trees," I might say. "If this place burns once you'll never see them again." It's one reason people don't invite me to go hiking with them (the other is my motto that when it comes to hiking short, there's no such thing as too short). 

This is why there's such a premium placed on wetlands. One reason we think wetlands are so important is that they act as filters for polluted water before they go into larger water bodies. They also soak up floodwater like sponges, preventing damage to the surrounding areas. Americans used to call them "swamps," and converted them to farmland. Now a city in Illinois is engineering wetlands instead of spending millions on constructing and maintaining water treatment plants, because wetlands manage themselves.

Nature is like that. Many times when things are out of whack environmentally it's because we removed a part. Aldo Leopold said, "To save every cog and wheel is the first precaution of the intelligent tinkerer." We get rid of wolves and we have too many elk; we drain the swamps and get fish-killing algae; you take the Jedi out of Rogue One and get... the best Star Wars movie in almost 40 years. OK, that last one doesn't work, but you get my point. The point is that human beings are animals and we're part of nature, even if your clever fashionista friend on Instagram insists that the only outdoors she's interested is the one opposite the "in" door at REI. We are the result of the same evolutionary pathway that created wetlands, aspen stands, poisonous snakes, and frickin' cheetahs. Our history is littered with war, disaster, and famine and our ancestors survived and passed the best on to us. Each one of us is built to weather the worst there is; it's all written there in our code.

A professor and a journalist tried to figure out why human beings laugh, and in their research found that there are two kinds of laughter. One is the spontaneous kind that happens whether we want it to or not, like if someone farts while saying a prayer. The other is social, and evolved in primates later:

This sort of laughter was a signal that things at the moment were OK, that danger was low and basic needs were met, and now was as good a time as any to explore, to play, to socialize. “What the humor is indexing and the laughter is signaling is, ‘this is an opportunity for learning,’” Gervais told us. “It signals this is a non-serious novelty, and recruits others to play and explore cognitively, emotionally and socially with the implications of this novelty.”
 What that article tells us is that we've been laughing for somewhere between two and four million years. You guys, that's a shload of memes.
By their nature, it came to me, children were freaks. They believed impossible things to suit themselves, thought their fantasies were the center of the world. They were the best kinds of quacks, if that’s what you wanted—pretenders who didn’t know they were pretending at all.
That's the kind of thing you'll read in Emily Fridlund's History of Wolves, which is a mesmerizing story about the year that changed 14-year-old Madeline's life. She goes by Linda most of the time. Or commie. Sometimes freak. This might surprise you at this point, but she's kind of an outcast. She grew up in a collectivist cult/commune started by her parents, but by the time we meet her it has been disbanded so now it's just her and her mom and dad in a cabin with no plumbing or electricity on the shore of a Minnesota lake popular for its walleye fishing. She's the extreme version of a free-range kid.

Madeline's coming of age story isn't the traditional one. She doesn't fall in love with a boy or have an adventure with her friends during her last year of high school and reflect on the bitter sweetness of growing up. Instead, she witnesses what she considers "one of the best accounts of the origin of human evil." I can almost guarantee that it's not what you think. Of the various profoundly flawed individuals in her life, herself included, there is no sneering villain. Instead, it's humans doing what they think is the best for themselves who hurt each other the worst.  

At the trial they kept asking, when did you know for sure there was something wrong? And the answer probably was: right away. But that feeling faded as I got to know him.
Madeline befriends Patra, a young mother from across the lake and her young son Paul and ingratiates herself in what seems like a very normal family. Patra's husband is finishing up a manuscript in another state, so she's grateful for the responsible teen who teaches Paul about Minnesota life in the woods and on the lake. There's a new teacher in school who fascinates Madeline, and a beautiful, broken girl named Lily in her class. All this is set against the backdrop of a lake community in flux from the sleepy cluster of houses that explodes with tourists to a permanent luxury community; something the adult Madeline no longer recognizes. 

We are treated with periodic flashes forward of her as an adult, sometimes not recognizing the young girl and her decisions that year. Other times she reflects on how it impacted her life later.
Later, I could get that drizzle feeling just about any time I saw a kid on a swing. The hopelessness of it—the forward excitement, the midflight return. The futile belief that the next time around, the next flight forward, you wouldn’t get dragged back again. You wouldn’t have to start over, and over.
Throughout History of Wolves, characters find themselves in impossible situations and sometimes do drastic and awful things to escape them. With the exception of one, they are survivors all. But their survival can sometimes come at deep costs to themselves and others.

It's a fascinating book that stuck with me. It makes me think of the little town it's based in. From a short-term perspective, the housing boom around the formerly near-pristine lake will be devastating to the local environment. From the long-term, though, I think nature wins. It might take a hundred or thousands of years, but it always does. Like children still laughing while playing a game during a class party when home is at best empty and at worst violent, it survives.