The Wolf Road, by Beth Lewis, is set in a world devastated by a previous generation. The protagonist, Elka, refers to past events as the Damn Stupid, a nuclear war which wiped out populations, contaminated huge swathes of land, and changed the world order.
Elka’s parents left her in the care of her maternal grandmother when she was very young to go north prospecting for gold. Elka and her grandmother do not get along and the child is regularly beaten.
When Elka is seven years old a vicious storm, a thunderhead, new since the Damn Stupid, destroys their two roomed wooden shack deep in the forest. It is not the first time this has happened, but her grandmother was out walking when the thunderhead struck and Elka is now homeless and alone. In attempting to make her way to the nearest town she gets lost and ends up at the dwelling of a man she comes to call Trapper. He takes Elka in and raises her, teaching her the skills needed to survive in the wild. He cautions her against people, who are the cause of all the troubles in the world.
By the time she is seventeen Elka is trusted to go to town to trade furs for shotgun shells and other provisions they cannot make, grow or hunt. She is shocked to discover Wanted posters tacked up around the town depicting Trapper. A magistrate, Jennifer Lyon, informs her that he has killed eight women and a child, possibly more. Before Elka can confront Trapper about these allegations, Lyon finds and destroys their shack. Confused and distressed, Elka decides to head north. She dreams of finding her parents.
The journey is filled with perils: wolves, bears, the weather, but most of all men. Elka knows how to survive on her own but has no experience of society. She begins to understand Trapper’s warning.
“All my life I lived by the rules of the forest and rules of myself. One of them rules is don’t go trusting another man’s path.[…] People do it, they do what their mommys and daddys did, they make them same mistakes […] Trees don’t grow exactly where their momma is, ain’t no room, ain’t enough light and water so they end up wilting and dying off. It’s the same with us humans […] Ranches and stores are passed father to son, momma to girl, but there ain’t no room for it. Son tries to run things like he wants, father ain’t having none of it, they start feuding and soon that family ‘ain’t no more.”
The story is told from Elka’s point of view. Although her grandmother tried to teach her to read she resisted learning. Now she finds that she does not understand how the world of men works. They are trying to rebuild towns as they were before, with the wily and ruthless grasping whatever they can by trickery or worse.
Elka finds a friend in another young woman. Penelope is a doctor’s daughter and offers to help Elka with tickets and permits. She understands all too well the greed and preoccupations of mankind.
“Bombs started falling, people thought the world would be changed. There was so much tension and paranoia, neighbours turning on neighbours, rich on poor […] When it was over, it was a new start but nobody won. The world didn’t change. There is still murder, still rape and fighting. […] We had this chance, this clean slate, and we just carried on the same as we always have.”
Elka and Penelope must deal with many dangers, not least the fact that Lyon is hot on their tails. They also have another stalker whose motives become clear by the denouement. Elka somehow finds the strength to face each trial and loss, but acceptance of what she herself has done presents the most difficult challenge to overcome.
This is a devastating critique of humans; their actions are unflinchingly depicted and depressingly believable. Elka’s respect for the land is a reminder of the true cost of unnecessary consumption. She has a feral nature but her humanity is a lesson for all.
A vivid, raw yet mesmerising tale. Highly recommended.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Borough Press.