Review of ‘Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear’ by Erica Berry
I’m pretty brave and not so put off, so meeting a wolf appealed to me – or at least didn’t immediately horrify me. I was ready to sit down, wait for a wolf and gawk. But face to face with her, I clenched my jaw and balked. The wolf walked away, returning to a volunteer she knew. I longed for a second shot, but I had missed my chance. I should forgive myself now: we can’t always control our fear. But it wasn’t exactly fear that set me back, at least not to the extent that “fear” describes specific concerns about a specific phenomenon – the awareness that This toothy predator might bite My human face, for example. The wolf chase felt more like ancient information, a message that flooded my brain and planted a terrified panic in my body.
Terror propels Erica Berry’s exhilarating book, “Wolfish: wolf, self and the stories we tell about fear.” The book revolves around two simultaneous projects: to understand the wolf as a symbol in human stories and as a real animal that humans encounter. This double pursuit is inseparable. It is the thing and its shadow. “There is always the creature in front of you and the creature in your mind,” Berry writes. “This wolf is a piece of cultural taxidermy, made by humans with parts pieced together across time and space.” In her quest for understanding, Berry travels across many non-fiction genres, from coming-of-age memoir to ecological history, from thriller-paced personal stories to feminist criticism, to poetic nature writing and to sociological theory. But the intuitive and meandering nature of Berry’s approach should not suggest that this work is hazy. The wolf wanders in the meanders And very targeted path to find food, a mate, a home. No matter where Berry weaves, she sniffs out fascinating ideas. And she writes about it in clear and beautiful language.
One of the most propelling themes of “Wolfish” involves the practice of stalking another creature. Berry writes: “There was something about going after an animal, focusing on being smart enough to try to find it, that heightened the experience of being in the woods, but also to simply be alive on earth.” His wolf hunt strengthens his ability to understand the world. She’s not sentimental or romantic about wolves, but she East keen. His research sends him far, but the book never suffers from a lack of direction. The best point of reference for “Wolfish” might be Helen Macdonald’s “parfait”.H is for Hawk.” But where this book was captivating (and about captivating), “Wolfish” reads expansively. And where Macdonald creates a character portrait of a rare and relatively unfamiliar creature (the goshawk), Berry has the difficult project of unraveling the myths about a rare creature we think we know.
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“The symbolic wolf is huge,” Berry writes. His chapter “Town v. Wolf” uses the children’s fable about “the crying wolf” to investigate questions about lies, boundaries, beliefs and violence. “The work of the state is first the work of creating borders,” Berry writes. She recounts how wolves are portrayed as vengeful murderers when they kill livestock inside a farmer’s fences; and she writes about how people who cross borders are portrayed in animalistic terms as a dreaded other. “Often it is only by anthropomorphizing animals and animalizing humans that fictions that require human boundaries can be buttressed.” Berry is interested not only in fear, but also in how fear changes the way we live. Here, she quotes essayist Eula Biss: “Fear is cruelty to those who are feared. Our wolf myths – Little Red Riding Hood, the boy who cried wolf – are stories of fear and warning. And these stories affect how we deal with real wolves, from romance on one side to extermination on the other.
In the process of making sense of these tales, “Wolfish” collects wolf-related idioms from all languages. Berry considers the wolf a sign of insatiable or incorrect hunger: “Stop swallowing your food.“Then there’s ‘going crazy’, which refers to ancient Norwegian warriors who donned wolf skin before killing. When Berry was living in Italy, she recalls, her boss would say, every time she walked through the door:Good luck!” In the mouth of the wolf! “It was a colloquialism, an idiom with roots in opera,” she wrote. “Like ‘breaking a leg’, it was a paradoxical wish for good luck. ‘Crepe!‘ I learned to respond. Let him die!” In French, she notes that “le loup” can refer to a hoarse voice, as if someone had been “silenced by fear of a wolf”.
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The most laborious of the idioms in “Wolfish” is another French (they have several): “entre chien et loup”. This phrase recalls “that hour of dawn or dusk when it becomes difficult to tell the difference between a dog and a wolf. That moment when you can’t tell if the shadow on the road in front of you is familiar or strange, if it poses a threat.
This line captures Berry’s most compelling argument about wolves – that they are defined in part by a kind of wavering indefinability. The wolf ignites a twilight uncertainty about what is fact and what is fable, about how to differentiate between bared teeth and a hanging tongue. There is a larger truth to this: our relationship to reality cannot be understood if we ignore our relationship to our myths. Berry never forgets that when we talk about wolves, even symbolically, we are talking about real animals. More importantly, she never forgets that we are real animals too. Forming a bifocal view of both the thing and its shadow is an act of respect that begins to undo the fear of the unknown.
When I recoiled from the wolf in Colorado, I interpreted my inability to relax as a yearning for a wilderness I couldn’t handle. But Berry encourages us to step into a scary world and declare: In bocca al lupo! In the mouth of the wolf! Maybe only then can we let the wolf into ours.
Maggie Lange writes about books for numerous publications. She also runs the weekly newsletter Purse Book, which publishes quick reviews of thin volumes.
Wolf, self and the stories we tell about fear
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