Charlotte McConaghy’s Once There Were Wolves (Flatiron Books, 2021) is a slow burn of an environmental novel that begins tumbling fast into a whodunnit. McConaghy skillfully masters three classic literary conflicts in this novel that initially appears to be man versus nature before turning to man versus man before showing its true colors as man versus self. The plot is captivating and the writing is strikingly beautiful; however, some scenes teeter too far into the “trauma porn” realm for this to have been a five-star read.
Inti Flynn grew up thinking she was part of the forest, and she wasn’t wrong. As an adult, she’s made wolves and their reintroduction to the wild her mission. When the novel opens, she’s just arrived in Scotland where she and her team will be releasing fourteen gray wolves into the Highlands. The reintroduction is met with resistance and fear from the local farmers, and Inti must walk a delicate balance to ensure the project is a success. But Inti has little patience for humans, the true monsters of the world, and playing nice with them isn’t in her wheelhouse. The wolves and their return to the wild are her life’s mission; she couldn’t care less what the locals think.
Inti wasn’t always so hard and unyielding. She’d been the soft one growing up, the one her mother insisted needing toughening up due to a rare condition called mirror touch synesthesia that allows her to feel the sensation of being touched when watching someone else being touched, both caresses and blows. But something had happened to her twin sister, Aggie, when they were in Alaska. Something that Inti had witnessed and felt. Now Inti is hard and unapologetic, and Aggie is a silent shell of the woman she once was. McConaghy is slow to reveal the root of Aggie’s trauma, but the novel is littered with hints that the actual triggering moment could have remained off page. She opted, however, to include it.
When a local (a man Inti knows to be a wife beater) turns up dead, Inti does what it takes to protect her wolves. She believes the animals were framed to cover up the true murderer. As the novel tumbles forward toward its bloody and cold truth, we see just how far Inti will go to protect her pack and how her pack protects her.
Once There Were Wolves reminds us that the big bad wolf was never the villain of the story. For someone who loved Julie of the Wolves as a child, this one held fast to my heart. It’s a beautiful read that gently reminds us that we have to be better stewards of the world we’ve been given, while also reminding us of the importance of family and love.
All creatures know love.
Read this book.