The Wolf Wants In by Laura McHugh
Published by Spiegel & Grau
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Mystery, Southern Grit
Blackwater is a town hovering near Kansas City; a place of farmers and granaries. It’s also one of those small towns with big problems. The opioid crisis is taking its toll, a little girl has been murdered, her father is missing, and another young man has seemingly died of a heart attack at age 36. There are two women tied to these events in Laura McHugh’s novel, The Wolf Wants In. Sadie Keller’s brother Shane is dead and no one, including his wife, seems interested in why. Henley Pettit has just graduated high school and just wants to get out of Blackwater, where her family name is known for nothing but trouble.
Sadie and Henley fall on opposite sides of Blackwater society (such as it is). The Kellers may not have had much but they’re respectable. She’s a social worker, often dealing with victims of drug abuse. Now she’s trying to find answers about her brother’s death, but all police focus is on a little girl found shot in the woods. Her mother is an old friend of Sadie’s, but it’s a friendship that fell by the wayside as the woman succumbed to an addiction that led to the custody battle that may have precipitated the girl’s death.
On the other side of the equation are the Pettits, known to be the local suppliers for whatever drug you need to get by. Henley’s cousin, Crystle, was Shane’s wife. She’s moved on from Shane’s death with alarming speed—selling off all his possessions, burning his papers, and leaving their house behind. Sadie and her family watch helplessly as his life is dismantled. For her part, Henley is a good kid, but she’s not untouched by the drug epidemic. Her mother has a penchant for fentanyl and heroin and is missing more often than not. Henley lives alone in their farmhouse while working as a housekeeper for the town’s only wealthy family. She’s saving her money to go to Colorado, but even then, her dreams don’t go beyond working as a maid at a resort.
McHugh lets Sadie and Henley spin their stories and in doing so reveals the webs that bind them both to unwelcome lives and circumstances. The novel has a claustrophobic feel as any charm Blackwater once had is long gone. Now it’s boarded up stores, cracked pavement, nothing to do, and no choices. Even the best of intentions won’t get you far. Out of this morass comes more secrets and more trauma. The good news is that at no time does McHugh lose control of Sadie and Henley’s narratives. Despite the tangles of pain and limitation in their lives The Wolf Wants In flows cleanly.
There’s a fiction genre called Southern grit which applies to such outstanding novels as The Line That Held Us and Bull Mountain. I’m going to expand it to ‘small town grit’ for novels like The Wolf Wants In and The Current. In each of these books the region feels less important than the city size and what the right author can pull out of it. I’m drawn to these stories, partly because I grew up in a one-stoplight town in the West, but also because, despite the bucolic nature of small towns, there are almost always more shadows than sunshine. Which always makes for good reading.