The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill (Flying Eye Books, hardback, 88 pages. Out now and available here.)
Review by Nick Hayes
William Grill’s second book, The Wolves of Currumpaw, tells the story of Old Lobo, a legendary wolf of New Mexico, and the artist, naturalist and hunter (aka standard Victorian), Ernest Thompson Seton, who killed him. The story is not Lobo’s, however, but Seton’s, and reveals the hunter’s epiphany over the dead body of this megawolf. Seton went on to campaign for the protection of the wolves, wrote an interminable series of schmultzy books about animals, and inspired David Attenborough to pick up a pair of binoculars.
There’s a hefty heritage in wolf writing, and none of it is about wolves. Cormac McCarthy’s book The Crossing describes two brothers hauling a wolf back to its original territory in New Mexico, a journey that precipitates their coming of age. Jack London’s hero dog, Buck, joins a wolf pack in Call of the Wild, and like a shaggy George Monbiot, he finds his inner wild. There’s Brennin, almost wolf, but not quite, the real protagonist of Mark Rowland’s book, The Philosopher and the Wolf, who guides the author to a deeper appreciation of life’s mechanics, death, companionship etc. There’s Mowgli’s adoptive parents in the Jungle Book, all nobility and courage, there’s the wolves in London zoo in Ted Hughes’ lament for his wife, the wild pain of living, and then there’s the myths. It seems that when we speak of wolves, we speak only of ourselves.
To writers, white men usually, the wolf is the screen onto which is projected a pH scale of abstract notions. On the one end, the wolf is the noble savage (the one these white men can still write about), the borderland maverick, the one that got away. It is the folk song gypsy, the vagabond, the indigenous soul of the wild, the virility that was never neutered by the necktie and motor engine. On the other end of the scale, it is the ultimate monster, the primal hangover of snarling teeth and aggressive masculinity, the violent rapist of all that it civilised, the shadow that stalks the doorway. And somewhere in between, around pH 7, we have Barry Lopez’s book, Of Wolves and Men, which focuses on the equally corrosive effects of either extreme. Because whilst the wolf may symbolise one thing or the other, what it actually represents is exoticism, an orientalism of animals, a compulsive casting of their lives onto a man-made stage.
And Grill’s subject, Seton, is a prime example of this instinct. Claiming direct lineage from the man that wiped out the last of the wolves in Scotland, he steps off the train into Grill’s story, accompanied by 130 traps, all manner of poisons and wolf baiting implements, and proceeds to do what no one before him has done. He discovers Lobo’s weakness is his mate, and by killing her, he draws in Lobo, whom he finally takes down with a trap clamped around each of his paws. Over the dead body of the wolf, the scales apparently fall from Seton’s eyes, and he sees not the legendary golden collar, or supernatural markings of the myth, but simply a dead wolf. Or does he?
William Grill is a fan of the old style storybook. With a place for your name at the start of the book, a list of characters and a glossary at the end, his book evokes a pre-digital age of books as prized objects; ornate boxes which store fabulous stories. They are the kind of books you’d get as a prize for good scouting in the seventies. In this sense, he is at the vanguard of the graphic novel movement, which does for stories what vinyl LPs do for music: the fetishisation of the object, the acknowledgement that we readers like something to hold, to adorn our lives. And Grill’s book is gorgeous: printed on a furry matt paper, enclosed in a cover of mock indigenous art, it is a tactile treasure. Grill’s style, a naïf crayony scrawl, has a similar energy and looseness as his contemporary in graphic novels, William Goldsmith – the kind of freedom in execution that is underpinned by skilled, tight draftsmanship. The larger illustrations, the sumptuous spreads of new Mexican landscape, of sunsets and flocks of birds are small drawings that have been enlarged for printing, allowing each pencil stroke to reveal the grain of the paper, and igniting a childish sense of wonder at being inside the picture. Grill renders his animals like cave paintings, stylised shapes that allow his style the liberty of looseness. His eye is caught by pattern, so that a cityscape becomes tessellating oblongs of buildings, or an image of snipe taking to the sky become a dazzle painting of negative space. Grill went to New Mexico to study the landscape, and the dizzying flatness of the plains, overscored by the vast cloud sculptures of the sky, evoke an exhilarating sense of space, of the wildness that contrasts with the clogged grid system of civilisation.
Grill’s first book, about Ernest Shackleton, is a book designed to introduce children to the spirit of adventure and his second follows the same format, this time leading the reader into an idea of environmentalism, and of how man can change his ways to become the saviour of nature as supposed to its aggressor. But just as Seton, the naturalist hero of his book, was accused in his day of Nature Faking, twisting the facts to increase the pathos, so perhaps Grill’s treatment of his subject is equally problematic. Four years before Seton released his book about Lobo, heroising the wolf and demonising himself as the hunter, Rudyard Kipling released the Jungle Book. Twenty years before, Anna Sewell released Black Beauty. Seton’s book went on to become the most popular of this new inclination in nature writing towards anthropomorphising animal subjects, giving them a soul that readers could relate to. All these books became instrumental, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring half a century later, in reigniting an emotional bond to nature and inspiring activists to campaign for the rights of animals. And yet, some of Seton’s contemporaries, the botanists, biologists and naturalists were unimpressed. Seton was accused of a sentimentality that clouded fact: “Of real observation there is hardly a vestige in his book; of deliberate trifling with natural history there is no end”.
And perhaps these Victorian sourpusses had a point: whilst all this wolf literature can serve to inspire awe and wonder in a reader, so leading them onto a more empathetic approach to animals, they still add to a palimpsest of exoticism that distances us from the subject. The response of writers to the wolf as either the savage native, or as noble outlier, is now, as ever, representative of a human response to whatever lies outside the frontier boundary. Grill himself refers to this in the Appendix of the book, saying: “Destructive early attitudes affected not only wolves but caused extreme suffering to native Americans, however I am aware that this book in no way represents the devastation inflicted upon Native Americans by European settlers.’’ Perhaps not, but it does speak to our past and ongoing attitude to the other, the native, the migrant, and our compulsion cast them as characters that suit our needs: hero or villain, the subject is still victim to a kind of romantic appropriation. Having read this stunning book to one’s child on the knee, the reader might well be left with a quiet doubt in their mind: do these stories that inspire us actually help us to improve the lives of their subject, or rather slot into the pre-existing templates of our mind, a mythopoetic perpetuation of them-and-usness that we find so hard to shake?
The Wolves of Currumpaw is available here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £14.99.
Nick Hayes on Caught by the River / Nick’s website