(Note: This review contains some spoilers.)
“The year I turned twelve,” Annabelle, the narrator of “Wolf Hollow,” tells us, “I learned that what I said and what I did mattered.”
Living in rural Pennsylvania in 1943, with the world at war, Annabelle is facing troubles of her own on the homefront. A new girl, Betty, has begun attending school with her, and it quickly becomes clear that she’s a girl with serious problems. Her attacks on Annabelle, her brothers, and others aren’t just silly pranks, they’re dangerous.
And things get really bad when Betty and her boyfriend, Andy, blame a homeless veteran named Toby for throwing a rock that seriously injures one of their schoolmates. Annabelle and her family consider Toby a friend, and she’s determined to find a way to clear his name. But the responsibility may just be too much for a 12-year-old girl to handle.
Lauren Wolk’s “Wolf Hollow” has earned much critical acclaim for its bold but sensitive handling of tough themes and storylines. There’s a realism to Annabelle’s struggles — she isn’t the kind of seemingly superpowered preteen one runs across in many modern children’s novels. She has a big heart and a brave spirit, but she has to work within her own limitations.
But the more injustice she experiences and witnesses, the more Annabelle develops her strength, her ideals, and her principles. She learns to stand up for herself and for others, even when it’s hard. She also learns that a time when fear is prevalent, such as a time of war, anyone — whether he’s a nice old German farmer or a U.S. Army veteran — can be scapegoated and made a target. In many ways, she’s an admirable role model.
On the other hand, Annabelle doesn’t always know the right way to handle some of these situations, and sometimes, despite her good intentions, she manages to mess up. In trying to protect Toby, she finds herself deceiving her parents and others in their community. (At the beginning and the end of the book, respectively, she tells us that this year was the year she learned both to lie and to tell the truth.)
Even more seriously, at one point Annabelle thinks she might know where to find a lost person, but hesitates for reasons of her own to share her idea. In the end, it turns out that it wouldn’t have made much difference, but Annabelle is (justly) haunted by her hesitation and what it might have meant.
“Wolf Hollow” is a well-written, thoughtful, often suspenseful book, and a wise one in many ways, but it’s also a very somber one. There aren’t a lot of happy endings here, and that might be troubling to some younger readers. Also, some of the descriptions, though not very explicit, are disturbing, as when Toby tells Annabelle about things he saw in the war.
Annabelle and her family have a quiet faith that’s not mentioned often, but that appears to give them help and comfort. (The exception is her aunt Lily, whose faith is showy and hypocritical.) Even through the eyes of faith, though, many of the events in “Wolf Hollow” will be difficult for some middle-schoolers to deal with. Parents should be aware of this when considering whether to give this book to their kids.
Image copyright Dutton Books for Young Readers. Review copy obtained from Barnes & Noble.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.