I nominated this debut novel for the Cybils Awards, without having read it myself, because Gary Schmidt, author of The Wednesday Wars and Okay For Now, said it was “a journey that every reader needs to go on.” It wasn’t until I read the author’s note at the end of the book that I realized that the inspiration for the story was the The Lais of Marie de France, in particular one story from that collection of twelfth century tales, the story of “Bisclavret”. And that source means something to me because Eldest Daughter, who is a French medieval scholar, wrote her doctoral dissertation and several other academic papers about aspects of the works of Marie de France. So, a serendipitous connection made this middle grade “not-a-werewolf” novel even more meaningful and fun for me.
The book is about a boy named Raul who lives at One of Our Kind boarding school. When the other kids go home on the weekends, Raul takes to the woods and changes into a wolf. But he’s “not a werewolf” because “werewolves are humans who got cursed. I’m not cursed. They have unibrows, and is you cut their skin you’ll see fur, not blood. Two fingertips fit between my eyebrows. I bleed. Werewolves attack people in the woods and eat them. I wouldn’t do that.” Raul is a boy/wolf, but he is determined to keep the woods and the school parts of his double life separated.
However, when a new boy in school also experiences the “woods magic”, and when Tuffman, the sadistic gym teacher becomes involved in Raul’s double life, too, Raul is forced to try to figure out how to reconcile the two parts of his dual nature. This novel is not for everybody. It’s weird. Raul thinks of himself as “not a monster”, but definitely a “weirdo”. Raul also doesn’t talk very much, and his thoughts are somewhat sophisticated and intelligent, but his voice as narrator is characterized by short, choppy sentences and fragments of sentences. He’s alone and a tough guy with a protective nature. And all of those aspects of his personality land him in trouble.
A certain type of kid might identify with Raul and with his story, might wish that they, too, could shape shift into a wolf on the weekends (or anytime). Raul’s wolf life doesn’t take up much space in the story; most of the real plot of the novel takes place in the human weekdays. And I guess that’s appropriate because in the end Raul is a boy who is learning to be human, not a wolf. I enjoyed reading the story of how Raul finds his family and his words and his vocation.