“What’s the difference between what you want to believe and what you do?” This is the question at the heart of Emily Fridlund’s explosive debut, a captivating study of human nature, the depths of belief, and the power of self-delusion.
Loose River, Minnesota, as experienced by 14-year-old Linda, feels as icy and foreign as Norway. In Linda’s world there is not quite enough, heat or attention or consistency. Her parents are more invested in their ideals and ideas than in being actual parents. As a result her mother, who replaced the zeal of a cult with the fanaticism of religion, insists on giving a Linda a real childhood unfettered by television and private school education. Unfortunately Linda’s life is also unfettered by many things normalcy is supposed to include, like friends.
A family moves in across the lake, one that seems to Linda’s hungry soul to be both extraordinary and wonderfully normal. When she befriends Patra and begins babysitting young Paul she senses plenty of the affection she craves, but instead of normalcy there is a strange, indescribable absence in that family, one that only becomes clear much too late.
Fridlund’s writing is beautiful, the symbolism present but not overdrawn: “Everything looked different from the other direction, and I couldn’t anticipate when the landmarks would appear. I only recognized them in retrospect, the moment we passed,” Linda notes during a roadtrip with the family. Fridlund, via adult Linda’s narration, creates suspense by hinting at a courtroom and a judge, at an event that will happen (had happened). A terrifying crime. But what, and committed by whom?
Fridlund explores the role of religion in her character’s lives. Linda’s mother carries multiple religions like a life preserver, life vest, and parachute—just in case. Leo and Patra are also religious, though the beliefs they subscribe to seem extreme, even to someone like Linda’s mother. They believe in the power of the mind, that sickness is due to a lack of goodness and a lack of mind power.
“Heaven and hell are ways of thinking,” they tell Linda. “Death is the false belief that anything could ever end.”
Fridlund’s story asks difficult questions: what comes first, religion or well-being; should there be religious exemptions for criminals; “what’s the difference between what you think and what you end up doing?”
There is space and stillness in Fridlund’s writing. The best and the worst of human nature lurk in the pages of her story—the history of wolves is actually a history of mankind, of the origin of evil. Brilliant.