"The Wolf Road" does a lot of trope twisting - part "True Grit" western, part post-apocalyptic quest, part "Call of the Wild", part Huck Finn with a more traumatic childhood - and it does it well - making the familiar feel new and the new feel connected to something I understand - so that, if that was all it did, I'd have closed the book having had a great read.
But Beth Lewis achieves much more than that. She creates something quite rare: a character with a unique voice, who, in telling her story frankly, sharing her thoughts and emotions and cursing her own mistakes and failings, makes us rethink how we see the world and the choices we make.
"The Wolf Road" is told as first person account of events through the eyes of Elka, a seventeen year old woman who is almost feral. She lives in the wild by becoming part of it not by trying to tame it. She is another predator in the forest, moving soundlessly, killing efficiently, hiding her tracks and building shelters and making fires to keep herself safer at night. It is only when she has to deal with people and their rules and their written-down words that Elka is vulnerable.
The novel opens with Elka hunting a monstrous man: large, fierce and bloodied, in a snow-filled forest, marked with a trail of blood. Hiding in a tree, she throws her serrated knife with enough power to pass through the man beneath his collar bone and pin him to a tree. Then she leaves him, cursing behind her, knowing that the Sheriff will find him soon. The murdering monster she has pinned to the tree is the man who raised her from the age of seven and taught her how to move through the world.
Here's a sample from that scene:
"I sat high, oak branch 'tween my knees, and watched the tattooed man stride about in the snow. Pictures all over his face, no skin left no more, just ink and blood. Looking for me, he was. Always looking for me. He left red drops in the white, fallen from his fish knife. Not fish blood though. Man blood. Boy blood. Lad from Tucket lost his scalp to that knife. Scrap of hair and pink hung from the man's belt. That was dripping too, hot and fresh. He'd left the body in the thicket for the wolves to find."
Most of the rest of the novel tells us how this came to be.
On the surface, the book is a picaresque novel, following an outcast as she makes her way across the country, running from her enemies and constantly under threat from the people she meets.
Underneath, the structure of "The Wolf Road" is more complicated. It isn't about Elka's adventures. It's about Elka coming to understand who she is and how she got to be that way.
Elka has a childhood she only partly allows herself to remember. The man who raised her isolated her, shaping her to be a weapon in the wilderness. He set her on The Wolf Road, being more predator that person. Elka has to come to terms with her past and decide for herself the Road she will walk. She knows herself well-enough to understand that the man saw something of himself in her that was already there and that it is an essential part of who she is. She doesn't accept that that is all she is.
Uneducated and illiterate, Elka is intelligent, observant and given to introspection. She is building her own code to live by. She believes it's wrong to kill a man who isn't trying to kill you. She believes that she is accountable for everything she's ever done. She believes in living in the here and now and dealing with what's in front of you.
"The Wolf Road" takes place after our world has been broken by "The Big Stupid" which destroyed cities, created irradiated wastelands, tripped a climate change where storms are too fierce to stand against and killed most of the people.
The result is that the civilisation that Elka encounters when she leaves the forest is a raw one where trust is hard to come by and the law only exists if someone with a gun chooses to enforce it. In a way, this entire world is on its own "Wolf Road", balancing survival and compassion, choosing to be better than they have to be.
In some ways. this made Elka more normal. She is far from the only person finding her way in this world.
There is a lot of violence and nastiness in the novel. Elka seems repeatedly to meet despicable people who try to do very bad things to her and often succeed. None of this is sugar-coated and some of the scenes make grim reading.
There is love, of a kind, in this book but it is not the soft-focus romantic kind. It is the kind that comes from knowing someone will spill their blood for you.
Elka is not a hero. She's not a devil either. She is a brave young woman who bears the scars of a life hard-lived, who knows herself to be capable of doing terrible things, who expects no mercy and who, if she allows herself to hope at all, wishes for nothing more than a peaceful life.
I will remember Elka for a long time.
I selected "The Wolf Road" because the audiobook version is read by one of my favourite narrators, Amy McFadden. She captures Elka perfectly, making the book a pleasure to listen to. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear her read the passage I've already quoted (plus a little bit more).