There’s something about reading a children’s literature book as an adult that reminds you of simpler things. When dragons could be easily slayed, the world was either good or evil, and anything was possible if you believed hard enough. The Wolf Wilder is, at its heart, a fairy tale that takes place in pre-revolution Russia. It sings with adventure, love, loss, and hope that are timeless and ageless qualities in a book.
Feo is a wolf wilder, a person who takes previously ‘domesticated’ wolves and teaches them how to be wild again. She lives with her mother and three half-wild wolves named Black, White, and Gray. Although wolves are almost revered by villagers and aristocrats, some people are not so fond of them—namely General Rakov who makes it his mission to take away everything that Feo loves…starting with her mother. Now Feo must travel to St. Petersburg to rescue her mother from prison. On her adventure, she meets many people who have also suffered and, with her wolves, they set out to change the world they live in.
The plot and characters are fairly simplistic but this is a kidlit book. Feo is a strong protagonist who fights for what she believes in with childlike naivety and learns some hard lessons on her adventure. She is both like and unlike most children, but growing up with wolves would do that to a person. Feo doesn’t conform to traditional gender roles and neither do a few of the supporting characters, and that’s refreshing.
The supporting characters are mostly in the background and are somewhat forgettable. Feo’s mother is barely in the actual narrative even though she is the main motivation for the plot. Ilya and Alexei support Feo well enough, and their subplots mix into the main plot with little difficulty. General Rakov is a villain perfect for children as he is evil without much backstory or explanation and the constant battle between Feo and him is one of the best parts of the novel. The villagers and other minor characters provide good lessons for Feo and don’t distract much from the flow of the story.
Other than Feo, the only ‘characters’ I really cared about were the wolves. Each one is given its own personality, quirks, and habits and they care about Feo as one of their pack. In addition to Black, White, and Gray, there is also an unnamed pup that Feo carries around and that symbolizes hope and youth better than any statement could.
The climax and ending are relatively short, neat, and tied together with a bow, but it is satisfying in a simplistic fashion. It adds to the fairy tale wonder of the narrative and the last sentence honestly almost made me tear up. One of the greatest strengths is the sense of setting and it was nice to read such a cold, wintery story in the midst of summer heat. The pacing is rather start-stop as it goes from an exciting world-building, stakes-ascending beginning to a dull, repetitive middle, to a fast-paced, hold-onto-your-wolves ending. However, it does manage to sneak some history and philosophy into a children’s book which is commendable because maybe it will get them to actually look up Lenin and Marx.
As others have said, the key to reading this book is to put yourself in a child’s winter boots. It contains all the key elements of a successful kidlit book: a dark and stormy girl, a lush setting, revolution, and wolves. Is it perfect? No. Is it beautiful and heartbreaking at times? Yes. This is a book I would’ve devoured and loved when I was ten, and if you have a child who loves Russia, wolves, or adventures through snowy wilderness then get them this book. If you’re an adult who also loves those things then give it a read and go back in time.
Howl on, readers. Howl on.