The Time of the Wolf is a children’s novel about an eleven-year-old boy surviving in the wild, bonding with animals, and the olden days. I read a lot of these as a kid. Did everyone in Canada?
It’s the late 1800s, somewhere in southern Ontario. Aaron McGregor’s parents have died of cholera and he’s moved in with his grumpy uncle and aunt. The walk to the one-room schoolhouse is four miles, but by cutting over the ridge he can squeeze in a little free time in the woods. One day he befriends an orphaned wolf cub, and their bond is the heart of the book.
MacDonald uses process-based descriptions of ordinary adult systems to add magic and mystery to his story. In Swallows and Amazons I loved reading about cooking eggs over a fire. In The Time of the Wolf MacDonald presents small puzzles and takes us through Aaron’s thought processes to create suspense and empathy.
“He quickly drew the cork from its opening and dribbled a little milk between the cub’s open jaws. It flowed through and out the other side of the animal’s mouth, disappearing among the dead leaves on the ground.
Aaron rose to his feet and considered the problem. He recalled how he had seen Uncle Archie feed a motherless calf by rolling a piece of flannel cloth into a tubular shape and fitting it to a pail of milk so that it acted like the wick in an oil lamp. While one end soaked up the milk from the bucket, the calf sucked upon the other. Could he make up something similar for the cub?”
This book is full of lessons, both about how the world works and about how to behave. I loved learning these survival tips as a kid. I loved learning about the wood stove in the one-room schoolhouse in one book, then reading about a bully spreading embers in another. There are glimmers of explanations about why “bad” people might be that way: the school bully is physically and emotionally abused by his father; the hunters mistakenly think wolves are eating their sheep; Aaron’s aunt and uncle are old and tired. But there’s not a lot of hand-wringing about others’ behaviour. I was amazed at how quickly MacDonald could make readers trust good characters — all he has to do is say Aaron likes Sophie or Mr. Nelson, and readers will like them too.
Structurally, The Time of the Wolf‘s beginning and end are curious. I know I read this book multiple times as a child, so I know at least this kid found it engaging. But the first chapter is dry, descriptive, and introspective. It reads like pre-writing, the paragraphs that get cut once the author really gets going. The information is important, but could it have been woven in later? Or do children expect a long introduction and scene-setting, because that’s how most fairytales work? On the other side, the end is brutally short. The major action of the climax runs to the very last page — there’s only two paragraphs of denouement. I remember first learning about denuement in Grade 9, and struggling to understand the concept. Is that because most children’s novels don’t have one? Do kids prefer a quick Happily Ever After? Harry Potter always got a comforting chat with Dumbledore and a sincere farewell from his friends. Aaron gets two paragraphs to sum up the rest of his life… and a final sentence that includes the title. Cinematic!