Best of 2013: Little Wolves, by Thomas Maltman
Little Wolves, by Thomas Maltman. Soho Press, 352 pp. January 2013
I was born and raised in west Michigan, which is somewhat on the border of East Coast and Midwest, in terms of culture. But I went to college and now live in Iowa, which is smack dab in the center of America’s Heartland. And while I love to travel, and I love elements of the different cultures each region of the country offers, I’m beginning to view stories that are set in the Midwest as more “comfort reads.” I like them, I believe, in part because I can relate to the setting of the story, not just the characters or the plot drive. There’s a sense of “home” in the book; I can belong in the story because I understand the world where the characters live.
This is the case in Thomas Maltman’s Little Wolves. In fact, this is the book that made me realize how good Midwest literature can be. Several things are going on here: In one corner, we’ve got a community responding to a tragic murder of, and by, one of its own. In another corner, the father of the murderer struggles to understand how his son could behave in such a way. In yet a third, a young pastor and his pregnant wife move to town for a job he receives at a local church. But in still a fourth corner we follow the wife and we try to figure out why she returned to this town, aside from her husband’s work.
All of this takes place in a small town on the Minnesota prairie, not too far from where I am. And while the story takes place in the late 1980s, much of its elements are timeless–they could just as easily have occurred yesterday.
Little Wolves is, when everything else is stripped away, a murder mystery. We know who the killer is, but what we don’t know is who the killer is–what drove him to commit the crime. But on top of this mystery is an intricate pattern of folklore and mythology, a testament to Maltman’s writing. When I was thinking of the books that I would include in this list, this book was one of the first I thought of.
If I had to describe Little Wolves in one word, I would choose the word grit. The grit of this novel is what lingered with me almost a year after I first read it, and what I love most about it. Despite its bits of magic realism, this book is a real novel; it seeps into the cracks of your memory and does not leave.
For those who live in Iowa, Little Wolves was chosen as the All Iowa Reads title of 2014. Local libraries across the state will be holding discussions and programming around this book.