One of the three book stores in the city centre of Almere went under a couple of weeks ago. This is a real shame. It was not the largest of the three but it usually had the best selection of English language books. Even at the horribly inflated Dutch book prizes I sometimes could not resist. When I found out the final sale was in full progress and much of the store empty. The entire inventory was offered with a 50% discount. Amid the books that were left I found a copy of Hearst's Promise of the Wolves. I have had my eye on this book for a while, not quite sure if I would like it or not. It turns out I was right to doubt. It wasn't one of those books you can't possibly make yourself to finish but I wasn't impressed by it either.
Promise of the Wolves is a story about the relationship between man and wolf. Most of the story is set 14,000 years ago in a valley in southern Europe (according to the back cover, the book itself does not mention a specific location). Four packs of wolves share the valley with a tribe of humans. Their relationship is governed by events 40,000 years ago that was the stuff of legends. The wolves attitude towards humans is completely dominated by the lessons learnt back then. Even with the mounting tensions between wolves and humans over prey they both need to survive, the legend is strictly enforced
Until the moment on of the wolves in the Swift River pack bears a litter of pups that should not be allowed to live. Intervention form the Greatwolves, the powerful overseers of the wolf packs in the valley saves the life of one of these pups. With her mother banished from the pack Kaala now has to struggle to find her place in the pack. A pack she is prophesies to either save or utterly destroy. On top of that Kaala also finds herself attracted to humans. When she breaks a taboo of the pack and saves one of their kind her position in the pack becomes even more precarious.
The book is written largely from the point of view of the wolves and anthropomorphizes them to a large extend. If you don't like that do not pick up this book. The author is not out to write a scientifically accurate description of the social structure among wolves. She does take care to carefully give each member of the pack its own personality but I must say they never really come truly alive to me. Promise of the Wolves is a fairly short novel with quite a few characters. Even in Kaala's pack some of the characters are not that well rounded and never rise above the roles that the general public would expect of various members of a pack.
It takes quite a while for the direction of the book to become clear. At first I wondered if it was some sort of take on the domestication of dogs or perhaps that the events that sparked to legend were some take on a scientific theory on human behaviour referred to as the Great Leap Forward but neither appears to be true. There are some vague, and in my opinion inaccurate, references to ecological principles in what the wolves call the balance. Eventually the driving force behind this story turns out to be entirely supernatural which I must admit was a bit of a disappointment.
The story is based on the idea that there is a connection between wolf and man. They are hunters we both admire and fear. Not killing by brute force but applying cunning tactics to bring down prey many times their size. Logically speaking this is a one sided affair of course. This connection is all in the head of a human. By choosing show the story from the wolf's point of view Hearst had the opportunity to explore what the other side of this relationship might look like. Whether you like a more spiritual or scientific approach to this, the book fails to do so. One unlikely occurrence in the prologue and a twisted legend among wolves do not make a solid basis to explain the behaviour of the Swift River pack.
Kaala's attraction to humans is a good example of this. Intellectually we know that her approaching humans is about a s smart as me sticking my hand in a roaring fire. She does so anyway. She feels compelled to do so. The reader has to accept this completely unnatural behaviour of wolves without any explanation why she does this. Anthropomorphizing is something I can live with but if you are make changes this radical, I need some sort of rationale. On the other end there are some problems too. Humans living in the same area as wolves generally have a healthy respect for their power. If you encounter one on your own, trying to be friends with it is not at the top of the list of possible reactions yet many of the human characters accept the presence of wolves easily.
Maybe Hearst means to explore some of these things in subsequent books, Promise of the Wolves is the first in a trilogy, but in this part I just didn't feel the story made much sense. The book is very readable and touching at times but overall I thought it was a disappointing read.
Title: Promise of the Wolves
Author: Dorothy Hearst
Publisher: Pocket Books
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 2008