Book Review: Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

Charlotte McConaghy’s Once There Were Wolves shares much in common with her previous novel, Migrations — the journey of a troubled young woman hoping to save the animals she loves, while also fighting the demons of her past. Yet despite these echoes, Once There Were Wolves is entirely unique in its story of biologist Inti Flynn, who leads a team in Scotland to reintroduce gray wolves to the Highlands. 

Inti arrives in Scotland with her identical twin, Aggie; like the wolves, they are closely bonded, instinctually and fiercely protective of each other. The sisters have never lived apart, but there’s more to it than that: A recent trauma that has left Aggie voiceless and homebound, “too soul-exhausted to do anything at all” and speaking only in the sign language she’d invented in their childhood. The mystery of Aggie’s trauma unfolds slowly, between the narrative of the wolf reintroduction and the twins’ complicated past. 

Children of divorce, Inti and Aggie divide their time between their mother in Sydney and their father in the woods of British Columbia. Their father, a former logger who regrets his past and now lives a frugal subsistence life in the woods, taught them that “the forest has a beating heart,” while their mother, a detective, doesn’t see why anyone would mourn dead trees in Canada when there are so many women dying in Australia. Inti herself believes people are more good than bad; though the wolves are the wild animals of the novel, Inti says at one point in the story, “I think it’s civilization that makes us violent.” 

Through the conflicts that arise when Inti’s project begins, McConaghy reminds us of a world we are in danger of losing (“We’ve forgotten how to move through the wilderness as if we belong in it,” Inti reflects). Not unexpectedly, the local farmers are not welcoming to the wolves or the scientists. Inti and her team try to show why rewilding is necessary to save the region: As her colleague, Evan, tells the locals, “‘If we can extend woodland cover by a hundred thousand hectares by 2026 then we could dramatically reduce C02 emissions that contribute to climate change and we could provide habitats for native species. The only way to do this is to control the herbivore population, and the simplest, most effective way to do that is to reintroduce a keystone predator species that was here long before we were.’”  

Yet the community is far more interested in protecting their sheep and cattle, and many refuse to fence in their livestock despite the scientists’ warnings. Inti recognizes that they’re willing to lose sheep or cows in order to have an excuse to kill wolves: “The children in us long for monsters to take forms we understand. They want to fear the wolves because they don’t want to fear each other.”

And indeed, soon after the wolves are released, one of them is shot and killed by a farmer — for no reason at all, and yet it’s a crime that goes unpunished — and the wolf’s pregnant mate howls for weeks, which only further upsets the entire community. 

Despite this killing, the wolves are otherwise thriving, and as Inti tracks their progress in their new home, she also gets to know some of the locals, among them a violent man who is abusing his wife, and the police chief she begins falling for. Yet when the abuser is found dead in the forest, the ensuing mystery — was it one of the wolves, or one of the locals whom Inti isn’t sure she can trust? — makes Inti fear for her project, and the decision she makes to protect the wolves has devastating consequences. 

McConaghy deftly captures the nuances of rewilding: the struggles within a community, the scientists’ doubts. “I began to wonder if what we were doing was right,” Inti thinks, reflecting on her previous work with wolves in Alaska. “If our involvement in their lives was too much. We were trying to save them but we killed them sometimes, too.” 

After a cow is killed by a wolf, locals take horrific action: In addition to vandalizing the research cabin as well as Inti and Aggie’s cottage, one day Inti encounters, hanging on the town sign, “Old Number Fourteen, the gray wolf who survived all manner of threat and led his family from the pens to safety. Decapitated, his head hanging from a noose, all four paws cut off and draped around the four points of the sign.” Something has to change, she realizes: “I stop being a woman, a human, an animal, whatever I was. I am fury dressed in flesh.” 

Inti takes to guarding sheep at night because it’s the only way she can protect the wolves, whose sorrow she detects in the pack: “It is true, certainly, that wolves mourn their own. I don’t think I am imagining their grief over lost Number Fourteen. There is something subdued about them; they don’t play. Even the pups seem muted.” While Inti has named only one wolf, Ash, the numbers by which they’re called are as much like names due to the attention and reverence Inti shows for each animal. 

Inti anthropomorphizes but also literally feels what their lives are like; she has a condition called “mirror-touch synesthesia,” in which her brain causes her body to feel what she witnesses, of any sentient being, human or animal — from the rabbit her father killed for food when she was eight (“the knife opened my throat and sliced my skin in one long swift motion to my tummy”) to the bruises of a woman beaten by her husband (“one entire side of her face is swollen so badly that her eye has disappeared in a pulp of blue and black, and the tissue around my own eye begins to tingle and swell, and I lose the vision in it…”).

This poetic and atmospheric novel is a mystery, a celebration of wolves, and a tribute to those who work to rewild our landscapes. To learn more about Once There Were Wolves and Charlotte McConaghy, read her interview with EcoLit Books here

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