Before you sit down with Minnesota-Wisconsin Ojibwe author Thomas Peacock’s strange, beautiful novel “The Wolf’s Trail,” close your eyes, and for a time, forget who you are. Let go of your name, your gender, your race, your history, your religion, your politics and passions.
Forget, even, that you are human. Imagine yourself a curious wolf cub listening to an old wolf “talk story" some dark night. As you listen, drowsy, dreaming, he tells you all he has learned, all he cannot forget.
His stories illuminate a great deal for the few pups who have the ability to pay attention, and for attentive humans. And that’s not just Ojibwe readers hungry for historical and psychological connection. In the wolf uncle’s stories of life’s origin, of wolves’ fraught connection with humans — both “parallel being” Natives and the “other humans” who came later — there are revelations for all.
“The Wolf’s Trail” is how Zhi-shay’ (old uncle) helps generations of unruly wolf pups who live in Nagahchiwanong, the south shore of Lake Superior (Gitche Gumee), understand the world. Zhi-shay’ tells them (several) stories of life’s origin, of how wolves found a home in the terrain around Lake Superior, of how the Ojibwe people became the wolves’ uneasy “shadow dance” partners, of what happened when the hordes of “other humans” arrived with their weapons and determination to subdue and subjugate.
Of course, the old wolf is channeling Ojibwe legends. Science and mythology tell us how much wolves and humans share. But non-Ojibwe readers will have no trouble recognizing the experiences that have generated these lessons. And when the old wolf speaks of zaagi’idiwin, which means both love and the creator, there is no language or cultural barrier.
Perhaps the most poignant of the stories of Zhi-shay’ is that of his younger brother, a “skunk,” “omega” wolf who struggled to act in a submissive manner daily as he was shunned and bullied within their pack. Zhi-shay’ was horrified by his brother’s treatment, but also heedful of the powerful pack rules in which such cruelty is embedded. The agonizing ambiguity of this tale makes it clear that mercy is not a natural trait. It is the child of love and wisdom, such as wolves from the same litter feel, and humans with the rare ability to think as widely as the heavens can sometimes heed.
Interspersed with the old wolf’s stories are brief notes from Peacock about historical documents he’s found that helped shape these stories. In one, he describes finding a letter from his great-grandmother to the U.S. government pleading that her son, his grandfather, not be sent back to a boarding school because she is ill and needs his help. Her request is briskly rejected, and in his absence, she dies. As he read this account, “my hands went to my face, and I wept quietly, to the discomfort of the researchers who were sitting near me,” Peacock writes.
There are many other things to appreciate about this book, including that every Ojibwe term is defined not just once, but patiently, many times, in parentheses, so that by book’s end, we have learned well what those words are.
There is such strong wisdom in this novel. We who are not Ojibwe learn so much about our Native brothers and sisters. As has been said too much of late, yet meant not enough, we are all in this together.
Is there any better measure of a work of art than that it links us? By that gauge, “The Wolf’s Trail” is a small, quiet masterpiece.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor. • @NightNewsPam
The Wolf’s Trail: An Ojibwe Story, Told by Wolves
By: Thomas D. Peacock.
Publisher: Holy Cow! Press, 180 pages, $16.95.