Friday, May 7, 2010

Fangs and Fear

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold:
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

- "The Destruction of Sennacherib," by George Gordon, Lord Byron

Sydney-born author Judith Clarke is my favorite of the YA Oz novelists, and she's not as well-known or squeal-inducing as some. This is a real shame as her literary talent transcends trend to reveal a real skill with words, whether in comedic stories, as in her Al Capsella series, or in more serious work. Her writing has a resonance that leaves the stories echoing in your ears for months and years after you've read them.

Judith Clarke's Wolf on the Fold is a collection of six interconnected short stories opening in 1935, and ending in 2002. The title suggests an outside threat to a defenseless group, and indeed, the novel chronicles generations of a family's struggle, beginning in the Great Depression in the 30's, continuing with various wars, divorces, deaths and financial woes. Through it all is woven a theme of survival.

The tautly written title narrative tells the story of fourteen year old Kenny Sinclair, who, in the middle of a desolate, cold winter after the death of his father, goes out to find a job to prevent his family from being divided, and he and his brothers ending up in a Home. Grieving, depressed yet finding himself needing to be the man of the family, Kenny sees his mother starving herself in order to provide for the kids, sees the baby wordlessly studying the faces of the older children, and knows he can't let it go on. He leaves school (which he hates anyway), squares his shoulders and sets out, knowing that there are dangerous drifters on the road of the isolated town where they live; knowing that he might find nothing. He goes out in hope and in hopeless terror.

'Be careful going through the flatlands,' his mother warns him. 'Don't stop for anyone.' But Kenny stops, and the language of the story evokes such a sense of horrible menace and anxiety -- without being overtly scary -- that readers are draw breathless to the edge of their seats. The words of the Byron poem that Kenny has learned in school ground, center and calm him in a time of peril, and in doing so, help him save his own life.

Many novels offer a coming-of age that takes place through a series of years. Though the time line of the novel begins with Kenny's parents, continues to his daughters and ends with his grandchildren, Kenny comes of age in a single breath. The horrible realization that he has walked into the lair of a murderer and is as defenseless as a lamb before wolves is the pivot upon which the entire novel turns. Who Kenny turns out to be because of this night affects him, his friends, his children and his future generations.

Each story in the novel includes Kenny in a way that ties the whole together, even when he's only the old man neighbor. The wolf coming down to savage the flock symbolizes the many threatening things the people in Kenny's life has to face, from bullies to screaming parents on the verge of divorce to war zones to Alzheimer's. This is a fabulously multi-layered, multi-generational book which really would be wonderful as a text for literature. In A Wolf on the Fold, the secret lives and choices of everyday people who are maybe dismissed as "only kids" are revealed, and the resilience and resourcefulness of those who survive provides readers rich food for thought.

1 comment :

Sarah Stevenson said...

What an intriguing format for a story/set of stories. Plus, check out that great cover design! (For those of us who judge books by their covers...)