Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West
by Nate Blakeslee (Crown, $28)
From its very first page, American Wolf races forward “like a predator on the hunt,” said Andrew Roush in the Texas Observer. That feels fitting, because the book’s heroine is a large gray wolf described by experts as “a once-in-a-generation hunter.” Known as O-Six, for the year she was born, this alpha female could take down a 700-pound elk alone, and she was also enough of a leader to assemble a pack that dominated Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley. Of course, gray wolves don’t heed park boundaries, sometimes roaming outside the protected area into territory where other hunters wait. Though you can guess how O-Six’s story ends, author Nate Blakeslee “resists the trap of giving the crackling narrative a villain.” The interests of humans and wildlife clash, but he withholds the sermons to instead deliver “the energy and verve of a best-selling thriller.”
The “rich particulars” of Blakeslee’s account were made possible by several human allies, said Christopher Keyes in Outside. The book’s principal non-lupine character, ranger Rick McIntyre, has kept watch over Yellowstone’s wolves for years, compiling thousands of pages of field notes to track how the species has fared since its controversial reintroduction to the park in 1995. Using the notes kept by McIntyre and other devoted wolf watchers, Blakeslee recounts O-Six’s rise in gripping detail, beginning with the unexpected alliance she formed with two male wolves the observers had nicknamed Dumb and Dumber. Together, the trio gathered a pack that routed all rivals, and their exploits were serialized online for followers around the world. Still, fame didn’t protect O-Six when, in late 2012, she crossed paths with the hunter Blakeslee chose not to identify or demonize.
The storytelling, though skillful, is “excruciatingly balanced,” said Verlyn Klinkenborg in The American Scholar. Blakeslee works so hard to create empathy for the hunter that he all but excuses O-Six’s killing, as well as all the Wyoming ranchers and politicians who condone wiping out gray wolves just as their forebears did. American Wolf is “an excellent primer to the saga of Yellowstone wolves,” but it makes a mistake that many wildlife narratives have made before: It suggests that the import of its story is in the emotional responses of readers and the characters they’re reading about. That focus misses the real issue: That the threat to the wolves comes from people still invested in the myth of the American West, a myth that tells them their right to raise cattle and hunt outweighs the wolves’ right not to be exterminated.