REVIEW: The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis

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In the remote wilds of a ravaged land, Elka has been raised by a man who isn’t her father. Since finding her wandering in the woods when she was seven, he has taught her how to hunt, shoot, set snares and start fires–everything she needs to survive. All she knows of the world outside is gleaned from whispers of a cataclysmic event that turned the clock back on civilization by a hundred and fifty years and reduced governments and technology to shambles, leaving men at the mercy of the elements–and each other.

Everything changes when Elka learns that the man she has been calling father is harboring a terrible secret. Armed with nothing but her knife and her wiles, she decides to escape his clutches and sets out on a long journey to the frozen north in the hope of finding her long-lost parents.

But as the trail of blood and bodies grows in her path, Elka realizes that daddy won’t be letting his little girl go without a fight. If she’s going to survive, she’ll have to turn and confront not just him, but the truth about what he’s turned her into.

REVIEW:

This thriller is proof that a villain doesn’t have to take center-stage to be sufficiently terrifying. A fearless teenage narrator, Elka, is on the run from her serial-killer surrogate father. “Hunted” gets much more attention than does “hunter,” and it works so well.

The year is unclear, but what is clear is that a far-reaching bombing event has propelled this corner of the world into a kind of post-apocalyptic lawlessness. This isn’t just any lawlessness, though; there’s a strong Wild West feel to The Wolf Road, with the magistrate sporting a six-shooter on her belt while traversing the land on horseback. People bear arms. They gather in a town square to witness hangings. Clothing is old-fashioned. Gold-seekers venture to a promised land a là the California Gold Rush.

This story is brutal, coarse, even barbaric, set almost entirely in woods that are as beautiful as they are ominous. The sense of urgency and ever-present danger is well-realized, with Elka’s impossible circumstances always clear and keenly felt. Concern for this young protagonist never lets up. Beth Lewis’s sense of pacing is excellent and her focus sharp. New scenes are introduced with impeccable timing, as are new, always interesting characters. Almost every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, which means there’s no resisting reading further. Always, the plot stays right on track, with high tension that never slackens.

Hunting monopolizes the spotlight in this book. Elka grew up hunting, andThe Wolf Road is replete with sometimes graphic descriptions of gutting and skinning kills. The cooking and eating of meat is described a lot, occasionally in fine detail and always with extreme relish. This is very much a savage, animalistic thriller, all told in Elka’s strongly accented voice.

Potential readers should know that despite what the Goodreads summary says, The Wolf Road isn’t remotely like The Road. The post-apocalyptic element is extremely underdeveloped. It consists merely of references to some bombing event (“The Damn Stupid,” in Elka’s words). Lewis never elaborated beyond that. The True Grit comparison is more apt, but in many respects this is quite like the 1985 movie “The Journey of Natty Gann” (minus the train, romance, and loving father). The Wolf Road features a relentless serial killer, but it’s his young prey that this story’s really about; he’s there, but he’s not. This is about her journey–literally and figuratively.

On the surface, The Wolf Road seems like a straightforward thriller, but as the story progresses, and particularly in its final chapters, it delves deep. Unfortunately, here the story does drag, with Elka grappling with her conscience for too long, ruminating at one point on how all humans have “dark in them.” Some rumination, however, is needed. The Wolf Road would be a lesser story without it. It still would be worth reading, but it wouldn’t touch the heart. What Lewis managed to do is thrill and stir the soul.

Final verdict: An unusual thriller with depth that surprises and satisfies. Highly recommended.

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