A Wolf Called Romeo

A Wolf Called Romeo book cover“It was one of those still days when you could hear snowdrifts collapsing in hisses, the sun so dazzling off the white-crusted ice that we seemed suspended on a cloud, bathed in light radiating from below. There we lay, three different species bound by a complex, often bitter history, taking simple comfort in the others’ presence, the sun’s warmth, and the passing of another winter.”   A Wolf Called Romeo, Nick Jans

This winter I wanted to be sure to write about a remarkable work of nonfiction that I read a few months ago, A Wolf Called Romeo by Nick Jans. A winter storm is moving in to our parts today, so it seemed a good opportunity to settle in and revisit this captivating story about a very unusual wolf who “courted” the town of Juneau, Alaska. Nick Jans has lived in Alaska for more than three decades and is a nature writer of the highest order. If you love wildlife, wolves, and dogs, you won’t want to miss this book, and you’ll likely want to read Jans’ other work as well.

No one has solved the mystery of why a black wolf wanted to make friends with Nick’s dogs and the dogs of the other townspeople who let their pets romp in the vast open spaces outside of Juneau. The black wolf was playful and unfailingly polite, chivalrous, almost courtly, which inspired Nick’s wife to call him Romeo. For half a dozen years or so, Romeo seemed to confine himself to an area of about seven square miles outside of Juneau, whereas wolves usually roam a territory of hundreds of square miles. Romeo spent long days with his domesticated companions, while keeping his distance from their human owners. He’d disappear for days at a time; at least once Romeo was spotted with a pack of wolves that passed through the area.

This got to be a complicated and controversial situation for the citizens of Juneau. Many of them grew to love Romeo and were fascinated by the rare opportunity to observe a wolf up close, while others felt wolves were to be hunted or should stay where they belonged, in the wild. Some worried Romeo might attack their pets. Rules had to be devised about how to behave around Romeo. For example, Romeo was not to be fed, so as to keep his hunting and survival skills sharp. People were advised to keep their distance from Romeo and avoid physical contact.

It’s hard to believe that at one time Nick Jans hunted and killed wolves, because he is so passionate about protecting Romeo. He recounts the history of his own relationship with wildlife, as well as the fraught relationship between humans and wolves as the American frontier was settled.

Nick observed Romeo closely for several years. He recorded his observations with the intention of writing this book which was ten years in the making. I found myself worrying along with Nick every time Romeo disappeared. For, of course, Romeo’s befriending of the town also left him vulnerable to aspects of civilization that are destructive to wildlife and nature.

This is an emotionally powerful read. Nick Jans reminds me of Barry Lopez, a nature writer I greatly admire. Here, though, Nick has made the story of the relationship between humans and the wild very personal. Romeo is fascinating and haunting, a loner caught between two worlds, not fully at home in either one of them. Thanks to Nick Jans, his story has touched those of us who may go a lifetime without seeing a wolf in the wild.

You can catch a glimpse of Romeo here.

Here is a wonderful site to find out about wolves, Wolf Song of Alaska.

Norfolk pine in a snowstorm

A good day to read A Wolf Called Romeo

 

The story of a happy marriage & the right to read

When Ann Patchett came home from school one day, there was a boy she’d never met in the kitchen. Turns out, he was one of four new step siblings. Her mother and his father had married, but they hadn’t yet told the six children who were now part of a blended family.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage book coverThis might be why Patchett likes to write novels about people from very different walks of life thrown together in extreme circumstances – such as in Bel Canto, my favorite novel of hers about terrorists, an opera singer, and political and business leaders in a hostage situation. (See also my post about State of Wonder.)

It may also have had something to do with why, for a long while, she’d been committed to staying single. Ann’s mother had twice divorced and her grandmother had divorced. In fact, divorce was scattered liberally throughout her family tree.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of Ann Patchett’s personal essays, one of them about her early divorce and her relationship with the man who eventually became her second husband. It’s an honest, personally revealing, and entrancing story about love and commitment.

Marriage is a metaphor for the many happy relationships in Ann’s life, including relationships with her writing, her bookstore, her grandmother, the strong and nurturing Catholic nuns where she went to school, and her dog. There are essays about all of this and more in Ann’s new book, a fine collection of meditations about life, love, and fulfillment.

I especially enjoyed Ann’s essay about writing, “The Getaway Car,” and those of you who write will like it as well. She is not of the school that everyone has one great novel in them, as a woman Ann met at a family reunion insisted. Ann usually has enough good sense to avoid such conversations, but this time she gave in.

“Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them? One five-minute mile? One algebraic proof?”

“No,” the woman said. But everyone has one great novel in them “because we each have the story of our life to tell.”

Ann does not agree and writes about how difficult it is to convey what we know on paper. This is what she has to say about writing a novel:

“I make up a novel in my head…I don’t take notes or make outlines; I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose windows in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life…..

…I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page….Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV…What I’m left with is a dry husk of my friend, a broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book……The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies.”

It stops most would-be writers cold.

Ann writes about the panic that set in when she sat down to write her first novel at a fine arts retreat, a story she’d been constructing in her imagination for a long while:

“Now that I was sitting still in front of a blank screen, I was appalled by all the things I hadn’t considered….until that minute I had never considered the actual narrative structure….what in the hell had I been doing all that time?”

She was tempted to throw out her idea altogether and start fresh, but an experienced writer told her to stay with her story.

“It was life-saving counsel,” Ann writes. “Without it, I could have spent the next seven months writing the first chapters of eighteen different novels, all of which I would have hated as much as I hated this one.”

There is another essay in the collection, “The Love Between the Two Women Is Not Normal,” that especially stands out for me. Ann had been best friends with Lucy Grealy, the acclaimed author of a memoir, “Autobiography of a Face.”  Lucy had cancer of the jaw at age nine and 38 reconstructive surgeries. She died of a drug overdose, and Ann wrote a book about their friendship, Truth and Beauty. The book had been assigned to the incoming freshman class at Clemson University in 2006, and Ann was invited to speak there at the beginning of the school year.

All was well until a Clemson alum, whose nieces and a nephew were students there, objected to the book assignment. “The book contains a very extensive list of over-the-top sexual and antireligious references…The explicit message that this sends to the students is that they are encouraged to find themselves sexually.”

A hue and cry ensued. Many angry parents wanted another book chosen and Ann’s invitation rescinded, while most of the students and Clemson’s administration supported Ann and the book selection. The Clemson alum held a press conference the day before Ann appeared, distributed copies of bad reviews of her book posted by Amazon readers, and took out a full-page ad in the local paper. The ad, among other things, accused Clemson of the sexual harassment of freshmen students and suggested the assigned reading of Truth and Beauty was insensitive because a Clemson student had recently been raped and murdered.

When the day came for an extremely nervous and alarmed Ann to speak in Clemson’s coliseum, there were protests, and the administration had arranged for her to have a bodyguard. 

Ann has included her Clemson speech, “The Right to Read,” in this collection of essays. Among other things, she said most of the freshmen students were old enough to vote and go to war and could make their own decisions about what to read and how they’d be influenced by it. She pointed out that if they had to be protected from Truth and Beauty, they’d most certainly need to be protected from Lolita and The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina.

Weeks after her speech, it occurred to Ann many of the students in the audience had likely never read Tolstoy or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Nabokov, and so they probably hadn’t understood what she was talking about.

As for me, I’m disturbed every time I hear about a protest of this nature over a book. If Patchett’s Truth and Beauty can cause such a furor, we live in a frightening world indeed.

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