OCTOBER 11, 2019
THE WOLF WANTS IN is a character-driven story of crime and loss in America’s quintessential heartland — a “small constellation of Kansas farming towns beyond the Kansas City suburbs, communities connected through high school sports rivalries and livestock auctions and the shared Walmart out on the highway.”
In her third novel, Laura McHugh has painted a vivid picture of Shade Tree, Kansas, its small-town wholesomeness ravaged by economic decline and the fallout from the opioid crisis. The oak trees surrounding the once-bustling town square are rotting from disease with no funds to replace or remove them, and the blight of drug addiction has become a pervasive part of the town’s identity.
A string of vacant storefronts surrounded the square, old two-story buildings with high ceilings covered in decorative pressed tin. The upper-level apartments, once coveted for their tall windows overlooking the park, were all empty save for the birds that came and went through the broken glass. The mayor’s grandson had died of an overdose in one of those abandoned rooms and wasn’t found until a foul puddle had leaked down to the floor below.
Untimely deaths are an all-too-common occurrence in the community, but when 36-year-old Shane Keller is reported dead by his not-so-grieving widow Crystle, his family has questions. Crystle has declined to obtain an autopsy, and Shane’s youngest sister, Sadie, refuses to accept the coroner’s ruling of natural causes, most likely a heart attack. Sadie doesn’t know Crystle well — she and Shane had been married for less than a year — but Crystle’s family, the Pettits, are known criminals, involved in the local drug trade, and her behavior is suspicious: she only informed the family of Shane’s death after accidentally dialing his sister Becca’s phone hours after the body was removed, she’s been defensive and confrontational to all of Sadie’s questions, and she refuses to release Shane’s medical records to the family.
Desperate for answers about how a healthy man could suddenly drop dead and frustrated that a widow’s rights legally supersede the rights of the biological family, Sadie tries to get the police to look into the matter. But when the skull of a nine-year-old girl is discovered in the woods, the authorities don’t have the manpower to waste on a noncriminal matter, and Sadie is forced to look for answers on her own.
The skull is identified as belonging to Macey Calhoun, a child who had gone missing with her father several months earlier in what was presumed to be a custody dispute. Sadie knew the family well, and had been close friends with Macey’s mother, Hannah, when their daughters were in preschool together. The women had fallen out of touch and gone through some hard times alone — Sadie’s divorce and Hannah’s addiction to painkillers following a car accident — but after Macey’s body is recovered, they reconnect, sharing the singular pain of mourning the sudden, unexplained death of a loved one, and wanting answers.
I couldn’t claim to know what Hannah was going through, how it felt to lose a child, though I could imagine the rough outlines of her pain. The way grief opened up inside you like a crypt, a dark pit with room for one, the torment of questions that might never be answered, secrets the dead alone could know.
As Hannah’s friend and confidante, Sadie becomes personally invested in the developments in the Calhoun case, hoping for a speedy resolution, for Hannah’s sake. However, when the bones of Macey’s father, Roger, also turn up in the woods, and Sadie’s investigation into Shane’s private life uncovers financial irregularities, marital infidelity, and a possible connection between Shane and the Calhouns’ deaths, Sadie is torn between loyalty to her family, justice for her friend’s daughter, and closure for them both in learning the truth.
McHugh uses alternating point-of-view chapters to develop Sadie’s narrative alongside that of Crystle’s younger cousin — 18-year-old Henley Pettit. There’s a bit of a chronological drag; Henley’s story begins several months prior to Sadie’s, slowly creeping closer until the two run parallel in time, their story lines eventually overlapping.
Henley is a fiercely independent young woman born to a family whose criminal behavior goes back generations. While she is not herself an active participant in the family business, she knows some of what goes on at her uncles’ body shop/salvage yard:
We’re just middlemen, [her uncle had] explained to her matter-of-factly when she was old enough to realize that Pettit Brothers did more than fix fenders and salvage cars. […] It was a business, one side of it blandly sterile — white-coated MDs writing scrips with scrubbed hands, pharmacists filling bottles. Her family was on the dirty side, where things got personal and decidedly more risky — face-to-face negotiations, wads of crumpled bills changing hands, the administration of punishment for unpaid debts and other infractions.
Henley is restless, determined to escape the small town’s gossip and judgment, tired of being defined by her family’s reputation, where “everyone knew she was a Pettit and what that was supposed to mean.” She recognizes that there is no future for her in Shade Tree, that “[s]mall towns liked to keep you in your place,” and she is sharp and resourceful enough to make her own opportunities elsewhere.
A recent high school graduate, she is preparing for this future on her own: her best friend, Charlie, has left for trade school, her mother, Missy, has gone off on a bender after two years of sobriety, and although she still has her family — her uncles and cousins and Crystle’s husband, Shane — for company, she feels the unwelcome pull of
the vacuum that threatened to swallow anyone who didn’t leave right away. She was mired in small-town purgatory, a lonesome in-between that drove people to have babies or pop pills or take a job shoveling grain, anything for the sensation of moving forward in a place you couldn’t escape.
“Bored and isolated,” Henley begins a relationship with Jason Sullivan, the only son of the town’s oldest and wealthiest family, their paths crossing during the housecleaning job she inherited from her mother. For her, it’s a small taste of what her life away from Shade Tree will be like: “She’d never been with someone who didn’t already know her, who hadn’t known her for her entire life. The novelty was strangely exhilarating.”
Although she fantasizes about what her future could be if she stayed with Jason, her goal was never to achieve wealth and security, it was to leave; to shed the past, on her own, and on her own terms, and Jason is not a realistic option for her. “The longer she stayed, the deeper she’d be drawn into things she wanted no part of, the knotted threads of her family’s misdeeds, her identity an inseparable piece of the whole, all of it sullied.”
Henley feels tainted by association by her family’s legacy, by the “misdeeds” that have contributed to a drug problem so pervasive, “[i]t was hard to find a family in town who hadn’t been touched by the scourge in some way. It had become an inescapable part of the landscape.”
Sadie has borne witness to the effects of opioids both professionally and personally — in her career as a social worker, and in her friendship with Hannah. She has seen the consequences, the aftereffects of lives swept aside in the wake of addiction apart from the obvious casualties:
The fallout from the drug epidemic had introduced new problems and compounded existing ones. Older people who would normally turn to their families for help now had children or grandchildren stealing their money and pills, and when those kids overdosed or went to rehab or prison, they left behind babies the grandparents were ill-equipped to raise.
These unforeseen consequences are mirrored in Sadie’s experiences grieving Shane; in the similarly unanticipated aftereffects of a bereavement, insidious pockets of pain that McHugh digs out, showing how a loved one’s absence swells to fill every unguarded moment in unexpected ways.
Shane wasn’t into social media, so we didn’t have an easy way to track down his old friends. I envied them, that they could continue to think of him from time to time, imagining that he was out there somewhere if they wanted to get in touch. I still caught myself picking up the phone to text him, not wanting to remove his name from my contacts because that felt too final, too real. As though erasing him from my phone was somehow worse than burying him.
The Wolf Wants In was inspired by the sudden and still-unsolved death of McHugh’s own brother in 2015, and is focused less on crime and mysteries than on what is left behind in the wake of crimes and mysteries; the grief and the emotional burdens resulting from unexplained deaths. McHugh and her siblings also searched for answers to their brother’s death, haunted by uncertainty, making Sadie’s discouragement over not knowing the circumstances of Shane’s last moments even more poignant. Sadie reflects, “I couldn’t help thinking that if we found the right pieces, it would all fit together and make sense. I couldn’t move on, not knowing.”
Shane’s character is written with a raw and palpable commingling of love and grief, and Sadie’s memories bring him to vivid life on the page: as a childhood protector, a rowdy prank-pulling boy, an artistic man with a big heart, the loving owner of an elderly and incontinent dog named Gravy, a good person whose mother was “both surprised and intensely proud of how he’d turned out — the high school diploma, the lack of a criminal record, the steady job.”
As Sadie investigates the circumstances around Shane’s death, digging through the boxes of Shane’s belongings that Crystle and her family hadn’t taken, sold, or burned before they could claim them, she finds herself learning more about her brother’s life than his death, discovering sides of him she never knew, people whose lives he touched who are also mourning his loss. “‘It’s not the same,’ I said, ‘but it makes me think of stories you read in the news, where some guy has two different families who don’t know about each other, and you wonder how they could possibly not know.’”
Discovering these hidden folds of her brother’s life gives Sadie room for doubt — if she didn’t even know about the young boy Shane had been mentoring for years as a surrogate son, what else had she missed? Perhaps Shane wasn’t as healthy as he had appeared, and had been concealing the heart condition that killed him to avoid worrying his family.
Shane had always kept his personal life private, even from us. I’d never thought of it as intentional, just a guy thing, not wanting to tell his sisters about his girlfriends. […] He didn’t talk about his job or his friends or what he did when we weren’t around. He’d barely mentioned Crystle before they got engaged — he only said something when Mom wondered aloud why he hadn’t been coming around as often.
The more Sadie learns about his private life, the more she begins to mourn not only Shane’s physical loss, but also the loss of the fundamental idea she had of their relationship, his secrets spilling out from a distance she hadn’t realized was between them. “I’d always felt close to my brother, but maybe the tight bond we’d shared as kids had loosened so gradually that I’d failed to notice.”
Although The Wolf Wants In is a crime novel with murder providing the dramatic impetus, its strength lies in its depiction of the stages of the grieving process. The resolution of the mystery plot line is satisfying; McHugh has given Sadie and her family the closure her own has been denied, but there is an emotional resonance that will linger long after the clues have all been found. Readers are left with a bittersweet hope for the characters, who have learned how “to go on living in the face of grief and loss and disappointment, accepting moments of peace and happiness when they came.”