“Peopled with Wolves”: Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border

The Wolf Border is about Rachel Caine, a zoologist who works at a conservation project in Idaho that reintroduces wolves to the wild. When the novel begins, she returns to her native Cumbria—where the book’s author, Sarah Hall, is also from, and where she has set much of her work—to visit her ailing mother and to meet Thomas, Earl of Annerdale, “a man who owns a fifth of her home county.” The Earl has concocted a scheme to reintroduce wolves to England, or, at least, to a vast enclosure on his estate which abuts on a national park.

Rachel plans only to indulge the Earl: she’s put off by his ability to buy and bulldoze his way into getting whatever he wants, made wary by something about him, he seems half-messianic, half-clueless. She turns him down. But then things happen: her mother dies and she gets pregnant after a messy one-night stand with a colleague. Even though she has no plans to keep the baby, and doesn’t even tell the father she’s pregnant, she finds herself drawn home. It gives her a reason to run away from a situation she doesn’t want to deal with.

The rest of the novel concerns the events of Rachel’s year and a half back home. She oversees the arrival of a breeding pair from a wolf rescue in Romania, decides to have the child, repairs her relationship with her half-brother, Lawrence, gets involved with the vet who is hired to work on the wolf project, and becomes, with the help of a community that forms around her, a parent to her infant son, Charlie.

Put that way, the book seems surprisingly optimistic. Things work out. Problems are solved. I say “surprisingly” because as I was reading the novel I could not shake a feeling of dread. Everything in the book feels precarious. I was sure something terrible was going to happen. That’s not just my pessimistic nature, either. The novel works hard to keep us unsettled.

Take, for example, the protests directed at the wolf reintegration project. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is excited about the prospect of returning wolves to the UK for the first time in 500 years. Many are unassuaged by sermons about what an apex predator can do for the health of an ecosystem. Farmers fear the loss of livestock, parents fear for their children. This despite the fact the wolves are enclosed in what is in effect a giant pen, with a costly and forbidding barrier system. Protestors picket outside the walls; the team receives threatening emails. Someone even damages the fence.

These worries pretty much come to naught. In general, when things go awry in this novel they turn out not to be so bad, even maybe to have been for the best. Alongside Rachel’s story, and the story of the wolves (whose fate we care about but who fittingly remain opaque to us) is another story, which seems not to matter much at first but eventually becomes important. This concerns the referendum on Scottish independence; in the novel’s alternate version of 2014, the Scots vote yes.

People in Cumbria of course pay attention to what their neighbours to the north are doing, and the Earl, as a peer of the realm and a close associate of the current PM, is closely involved in the campaigning before and negotiating afterwards. But this all happens off-stage, with only occasional references to the success the Scots are making of their newfound independence, which takes a socialist direction: “Across the border, great swathes of foreign-owned land is being recovered, taxes levied on the distilleries, the salmon farms.” When a stretch of bitterly cold and snowy weather brings life in England to a halt, the Scots manage just fine: “The new transport minister says Scotland is equipped and faring well. The ploughs are out; the roads are gritted. Glasgow airport is open for business, flights to Heathrow are being redirected there.”

It shouldn’t surprise us then—though this is something of a spoiler, so if that sort of thing bothers you, feel free to skip down the page a bit—that Scotland is where the characters end up. For the wolves do escape—not by digging under or leaping over the barrier, but by simply walking out the front door: someone leaves the gate open (we never know for sure who’s done it, but it’s pretty clear it’s Thomas himself, the Earl having had a more ambitious, even Machiavellian plan than he had ever disclosed). The last part of the novel is an extended chase scene, as Rachel and her colleagues, together with the local constabulary, race across the fells trying to capture the wolves before anyone can harm them.


That the wolves end up in the remote highlands of Scotland, where they may be able to genuinely roam free, cements the novel’s conclusions about independence and freedom, which is that these states are both desirable and possible, though of course risky and precarious. But what Rachel must come to learn is what the animals she studies have always known: that freedom can’t be a synonym for isolation, and that to be independent you must learn to work with others, the rest of the pack as it were. (The original pair has a litter after their first winter in the preserve, so it is a family that escapes into the wilds of Scotland.)

This message resonates even more strongly in post-Brexit England, of course, but ultimately politics isn’t the novel’s main interest. It’s not uninterested in politics, and one way to read the book is as an allegory for devolution, but I don’t think it would be the most interesting way. Hall keeps the allegory light—though tellingly the novel’s final word is fàilte, Gaelic for welcome—and instead spends her energy thinking about the interplay of wildness and domestication.

An epigraph tells us that in Finnish “wolf border” refers to “the boundary between the capital region and the rest of the country. The name suggests everything outside the border is wilderness.” Rachel later calls the wolf border a place “where the streetlights end and the wilderness begins.” Of course the idea of wilderness is itself a fantasy, a cultural construct. And Rachel is clear-sighted about the artificiality of her work: the preserve at Annerdale is, in some sense, only a glorified zoo (though after an initial period, the animals are not fed and must fend for themselves). Unless other wolves are brought in, the initial litter must be sterilized. “Rewilding” doesn’t mean “making things return to nature.”

For after all, Rachel is a manager, not so different from the Earl’s gamekeeper. Moreover, over the course of the book she herself becomes managed, entangled with others, needing and wanting them. Children have a way of doing that. It’s possible, then, to read the novel to be advocating for Rachel’s domestication, as if positing an inverse relationship between her and her animal charges: the more wild the wolves become, the more tamed she is. The woman who at the beginning of the book discreetly and assertively organizes no-strings-attached sexual relationships is a different, more settled person by the end.

Yet I’m not fully convinced by this reading. It’s not as though Rachel gives up her job or ties herself to a man. The novel is about bonds rather than domestication. Rachel’s “family” is idiosyncratic and non-nuclear: there’s her half-brother, but also her boyfriend, if that’s what Alexander is, and his daughter, as well as a co-worker and a volunteer from the project. It’s a rag-tag but kind and loyal group, and she needs their help. They form her community. And what the novel really seems to be most interested in—the thing that has always driven Hall’s writing—is the relationship of community to landscape.

Hall’s prose isn’t flashy: she likes sentence fragments and comma splices and straightforward, declarative sentences that read almost too easily, offering little resistance to our readerly teeth. (Hall most reminds me of Tessa Hadley and Rachel Seiffert, two other terrific contemporary British writers whose appeal lies elsewhere than at sentence-level.) Only in her descriptions of landscape does the prose stir a little. This tendency doesn’t just reflect Rachel’s preferences (environment over psychology, exterior over interior states); it also speaks to the novel’s deepest convictions. There are many examples of lyricism of this sort. Consider this description of the arrival of spring:

All week, rain. Big splashing drops on every surface like a child’s illustration of rain. Blue vanishing light and winds from nowhere, bringing slant, destructive showers, or fine drizzle. At night there is rain that exists only as sound on the cottage roof, leaving doused grass in the morning and pools in the rutted lane. The streams and rivers on the estate swell. Spawn clings to submerged rocks and reeds as the current tugs. The lake accepts the extra volume indifferently. And then, when it seems the rain will never end, there’s an explosion of sunshine, the startling heat of it through the cool spring air. Within days a green wildness takes over Annerdale. Dandelions come up, early meadow flowers; the moorland ripens, sphagnum, cotton grass, the white filament heads turning in the breeze. Rachel settles in. The fire in the cottage draws well, the place is cozy.

Or a later one from mid-summer:

Later in the week, Rachel swims in the river with Huib [her co-worker] and Sylvia [the Earl’s daughter, who is volunteering for the project on her gap year]. The heat has become massive, almost solid, the fan in the office stirring turgid air, and there seems no better way to cool down. … The pool is not cold, but cool, exquisite. The valley’s rocks over which the water has travelled have been warmed, patches of the river are warm, too. The slate bottom electrifies the water, renders it exotically blue, like something from a rainforest or a lagoon. Further up are waterfalls, in deep, shadowed gulleys, the miasma of their spray jeweled by sunlight. Sylvia and her brother Leo bathed here as children, she tells them. Huib, too, has discovered the spot, a short hike from the stone bridge near the wolfery, and has been using it regularly. Still, the place has a feeling of gorgeous secrecy.

I don’t find these descriptions extraordinary—Hall is no D. H. Lawrence—but I do think they’re beautiful. Nothing in the syntax or even the diction (save maybe that description of showers as “slant, destructive”) particularly stands out. Yet these passages vividly convey that sense of place, and what it means to live in close relationship to it. For both paragraphs also incorporate human interaction and situatedness, whether through literal homes or the more figurative dwelling place of memory, in their descriptions of the natural world.

Unlike many contemporary literary novels, The Wolf Border doesn’t make a fetish of trauma or apocalypse. Which doesn’t make it naïve or sanguine. Indeed, if this novel in which things work out has a dream, it would be the hope that people could live in some kind of non-exploitative and generative relationship with a landscape that is nonetheless not quite antithetical or hostile but always indifferent and potentially dangerous to them. However fanciful Hall’s glimpses of a tolerant, communal-thinking Scotland might be, she’s never simplistic about nature. She isn’t asking us to rediscover some communion with nature that we never had in the first place.

A passage from a scene in which Rachel, heavily pregnant, is let into the enclosure to check in on the wolves seems to get at these complications. As the van carrying her co-workers drives away she looks for somewhere to pee:

The sound of the van dies away, All is quiet. The ground underfoot is plump and springy, upholstered with moss—rising up, the musty smell of wet bark and fungus. There are frilled orange brackets growing around the trunks, berries, dusty blue and blood red. She squats and relieves herself, the weight of the baby making it awkward to hold her position—she leans against a tree. The branches rustle behind her, the lipping wind or birds flitting between trunks, something stepping back under cover. There’s no one there, but she suddenly feels self-conscious, watched. She stands and looks into the trees, their dark old republic. The perfect environment for ambushing lynx, or bear.

It’s unclear whether “ambushing” in that last sentence is an adjective or a verb. And if the latter, who is supposed to be doing the ambushing? Are the lynxes or bears themselves ambushing something—like maybe Rachel herself, or, more accurately, like human beings, since there aren’t any of those predators in England any more and what she is seeing is only a landscape that could perhaps one day support them again? Or are the lynxes and bears being ambushed by something else? Perhaps the presence that unnerves Rachel here—which might be the wolves themselves (they are more often seen indirectly, through their traces, rather than directly) or perhaps something less sentient but no less palpable, something that here goes by the resonant name of the dark old republic of trees. Could a republic of trees ever include the human? By posing questions like these, Hall’s entertaining novel also gives us a lot to think about.


The first book of Hall’s I read was her third, The Carhullan Army (2007). (It was disastrously re-titled Daughters of the North for its US edition, a wishy washy choice so out of step with the book’s subject matter that I can’t bring myself to use it.) Here Hall brilliantly explores what life could be like after vast societal upheavals caused by extreme climate change. Specifically, she imagines a utopian community of women who live freely in the remote reaches of the Lake District. But this freedom is also highly regulated, indeed it is as structured around violence as the impoverished, wan totalitarianism of what is left of ordinary society. I was riveted by the book when I first read it—I still think of it regularly: in particular its description of how unable those who had grown up amidst capitalist plenty were to adapt to a new and much reduced way of live seems spot on—and later taught it in two separate courses. Students liked it a lot too. In the end, though, I found the book became a little less exciting the more I taught it, a bit more schematic than I’d have liked, and I dropped it from my rotation. But it’s definitely worth reading.

Hall’s next book, a kind of novel in linked stories called How to Paint a Dead Man (2009), was unsatisfying. Then Hall released a collection of stories called The Beautiful Indifference (2011), which I liked quite a bit. Among other things, they reminded me that Hall writes about sex really well. (There’s a scene in The Wolf Border that’s arousing without being the least bit exploitative—not easy to do.) The new novel is Hall’s most accomplished—at least of the ones I’ve read. (I mean to get to her first one, Haweswater, I think it’s a historical novel set in the 1930s in Cumbria; the second, Electric Michaelangelo, was shortlisted for the Booker, I believe, but it’s about a tattoo artist: not immediately appealing to me.) I sensed a new maturity in The Wolf Border and hope that her best work is still ahead of her. Sarah Hall is a significant contemporary English writer, maybe not one for the ages, but not all writers are. As you can see, The Wolf Border gave me plenty to think about, though I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. If you’ve read it, I’d really like to know what you think.

Farley Mowat and Me

As has been widely reported in Canada (here, for example) and even in the US (NY Times obituary here), the author and conservationist Farley Mowat has died at the age of 92.

I admit I hadn’t realized he was still alive. But the news made me sad. I’ve had many literary heroes in my lifetime, many of them much more important to the person I am today than Mowat. But he was the first, the first writer I loved more as a presence (and, in his case, a conscience) thank as a mere name attached to whatever book I happened to be reading.

I believe it was my mother’s friend Thea, a kind of surrogate mother to me in my early childhood, who first gave me one of his books, Never Cry Wolf (1963) the story of Mowat’s time in the “barren lands” of Northern Manitoba in 1948-9, where he was charged by a governmental agency to investigate the unexplained disappearance of the caribou population.

As a child I loved wolves, all animals really, but wolves especially. I’m not sure if that love predated my reading the book, and that’s why she gave it to me, or if it was reading this book that made me love them. At any rate, I read it many times, and what sticks with me most is what sticks with most people about it: Mowat eating mice to see what they were like, since they made up the bulk of the wolves diets. This fact puzzled Mowat—how could such large creatures live off of such tiny ones?—but more than mere curiosity was at stake. If wolves lived almost entirely off mice, they weren’t the ones responsible for the decline of the caribou. Mowat’s conclusion that wolves were not to be feared and exterminated was a minority opinion at the time, though it is accepted wisdom among scientists today.

Wolves were good animals for me to love. They were underdogs, a position that has always appealed to me. They were beautiful and smart. And they were remote from my daily life; even growing up in Western Canada, where wildlife was a part of life, I never saw a wolf in the wild. Wolves were something to think or dream about, not something to have to reckon with.

That suited me because my interest in animals—which lasted a long time; for many years I wanted nothing more than to be a zookeeper when I grew up—had one particularly strange aspect. I did not actually like animals very much. My father forbade animals in our house, and it wasn’t until my sister and I were teenagers that she circumvented (by which I mean simply ignored) his interdiction by bringing a cat home one day. (It seems fitting that it was father who gave me, a little later in my childhood, a book that would prove even more important to me than Mowat’s, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which was as much about people as about animals.) You might think that the absence of any real animals in my life would make me all the more eager for contact with them. But I don’t think so. Instead, that absence allowed me to love animals in the abstract. I was never one of those children who mucked about in woods or fields or swamps with specimen jars. I did not ride horses and volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary (not that children volunteered in those days; we didn’t have to do nearly as much as children do today, thank God).

Truth be told, animals kind of freaked me out. (In retrospect this seems quite a reasonable response to the otherness of animals—a sentiment Mowat would certainly not have shared, since his lonely childhood was spent largely in their company, and he thought of them as friends.) I liked my animals in the zoo, or seen from the car in the mountains where my family spent most of our weekends. The detachment of the zoo-going experience—me watching them through the glass or bars, or, increasingly, as this was the 70s and ideas about zoos were changing, over a moat—suited me just fine.

There was something hopeless and false about my passion for animals, which was, it seems to me now, really a blind for a more genuine passion, one that still drives me today, to know about things, to achieve mastery through knowledge. If I am honest, I think it was mostly a way for me to accumulate books about animals. Accumulating books on whatever subject matter rules my current fancy has been my greatest life-long passion.

At any rate, I liked Never Cry Wolf a lot. I can still picture my edition, the cheap white Seal paperback with the photo of the wolf on the cover. Many years later, when I taught my first self-designed course in graduate school—a course on foundlings and feral children—I called the course “Never Cry Wolf” in private homage to Mowat, even though his book or its ideas had almost nothing to do with the course.

I was a very serious and dutiful little boy, as you can imagine, and so I read most of Mowat’s other books about what we would today call environmental topics, including the controversial People of the Deer (1952), a study of the Ihalmiut people of the border between Manitoba and what is now Nunavut, and their starvation and suffering as the caribou population dwindled. I remember getting its sort-of sequel, The Desperate People, as a birthday present when I was probably about eight or nine. My best friend David Wilson, brash, a bit of a wag, looked at the picture on the cover of Inuit people in a stark northern landscape and said, “Of course they were desperate, they didn’t have any bathrooms!” Part of me thought that was hilarious and part of me thought it was disrespectful. These were serious books about serious matters. I didn’t know that the books had been controversial, had been derided at by some at the time of publication (Mowat was called “Hardly Know-It” by Northern Hands). Nor could I have known they would be savagely debunked in the 1990s by an investigative journalist who argued that Mowat didn’t know what he was talking about, hadn’t seen most of the things he described, had seriously overstated his experiences.

Mowat defended himself by distinguishing stentoriously between facts and truth. That seems to me both tendentious and appropriate, but what mattered to me at the time, and even perhaps now, was the sense I first got, as a young liberal in training, of a cause that one could feel sentimentally and self-righteously exercised over. (In this regard, these seem to me very Canadian books.)

No matter how badly I felt about the Inuit and the caribou and the natural world in general—I once wrote a letter to the Premier of Alberta protesting a planned hydro-electric plant that threatened the nesting grounds of whooping cranes, a letter that got a patronizing reply devastatingly, to my insecure self, addressed to Miss Stuber—I read these books of Mowat’s more from duty than from love. And in my defense, if one is needed, they were hard books for an eight year old. But Mowat wrote lots of other books, for children or at least about children, and those were the ones I loved and read over and over. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, The Boat that Wouldn’t Float (strange, the intransigent refusals of these titles), A Family of Owls, The Black Joke: I enjoyed them all.

But there were two books that I returned to again and again until they became a part of me. These were Lost in the Barrens (1956) and, most importantly, because I actually owned it, its sequel, the deliciously named The Curse of the Viking Grave (1966). These were adventure stories, again set in that Northern Manitoba tundra landscape so formative in Mowat’s life. They featured three boys, an orphaned white (Jamie McNair, who lives with his uncle Angus, a trapper—ah those Scots names!), a Cree Indian (Awasin) and an Eskimo (Peetyuk). (We called them Eskimo back then.) I learned a lot from those books: how easy it is to tire yourself out walking through the snow (always go single file, so the second person can follow in the first one’s tracks, and be sure to trade places regularly); how dangerous it is to walk through snow all day on a sunny day (you’ll get snow blindness, the description of which I remember to this day, like fine sand ground into the eyes, although you can try to avoid by making glasses from strips of birch bark with slits cut into them). Without making a big deal of it, these books, I now observe, were strikingly inter- or multi-cultural. Mostly they were exciting as all hell and I never tired of them

Thinking about these books today, so many years later, I see that they helped me, a child of immigrant parents, solidify my identity as a first-generation Canadian. In a sense, Canadian identity was born in the 1970s by various initiatives of the Trudeau government; part of that developing identity lay in acknowledging and generating a profound, if problematic because sentimental, interest in the North. (Previously it has been either ignored as meaningless or valued only as an empty space from which to extract resources—a view lamentably still prevalent, with deadly consequences for the people and creatures that live there.)

I didn’t think about any of this at the time. Nor did I read only books by Farley Mowat. I read pretty voraciously, and loved all kinds of books. I had many deep readerly loves, like Gerald Durrell, L. M. Montgomery, Arthur Ransom, and, a bit later, P. G. Wodehouse. But Mowat was the first, and so meant a lot to me, even though he would probably have despaired of me.


For a long time I would get up very early on Saturday mornings and read in bed while the house was quiet. (Now that I have a small child, I think what a wonderful gift I gave to my parents. I can hardly wait until my daughter can entertain herself that way.) I remember shaking off my sleepiness, plunging into my book, having long unadulterated stretches of time entirely to myself with no other purpose than to create myself. However fraught or wrongheaded or sketchy Mowat’s ideas and practices—but if he’s remembered at all, it will be as a prescient figure, as one who saw early on that human beings cannot be understood apart from the environment that surrounds them and of which they are a part, and not the most important—I will always remember fondly both him and the gifts he unknowingly gave that slight, reserved boy alone in his bedroom.

I wonder who will be my daughter’s Mowat, that first role model she’ll stumble across who will have nothing to do with me.