Essayist Erica Berry’s debut book Wolfish is difficult to pin down. It blends non-fiction genres and topics, including memoir, journalism, and cultural criticism, to analyze how our understanding of wolves has been shaped throughout history while examining the existential threats real wolves face as a species. Berry believes conducting these examinations side-by-side is necessary because “we cannot untether the biological wolf from the stories told about it without also examining those associative, metaphorical stories.”
Berry delves into folklore and mythology to reveal the narratives that construct our cultural understanding of the wolf. She examines metaphors and idioms about lone-wolf terrorists and wolf warriors and the fear-based messaging in classic children’s stories like Little Red Riding Hood and The Boy Who Cried Wolf. She also explores lesser-known connections between wolves and humans, like the Navajo, who have historically held wolves in high esteem and view them as kin, not vicious beasts.
The beating heart of Wolfish is fear: what drives it, what bodies we attach it to, and how we can learn to live with it. In the introduction, Berry writes that her study of wolves stems from her interest in the wolf as “a body that could be both feared and feared for, sometimes simultaneously.” Berry uses wolves as a vehicle for exploring her own fears and experiences about violence since wolves, much like men, are feared for their potential to do violence.
Berry writes candid, vulnerable prose about her persistent, debilitating fear of men. Berry attempts to reckon with this fear by reflecting on her encounters with strange men — encounters that inevitably result in a cycle of self-doubt because, while every situation portrayed leaves her shaken, none end violently. Berry starts to doubt her own fear response — was she overreacting? Was she underreacting? — but ultimately can neither validate nor repudiate her reactions.
Berry situates her fear of men alongside humankind’s fear of wolf attacks. When reflecting on the death of a woman who has been killed by a wolf, Berry writes, “to talk about a woman dying by the teeth of a real wolf and not a metaphorical one is to talk about a statistical sliver of occurrence robed disproportionately in fear.” It’s not hard to see the similarity between this argument and arguments about stranger-based fear since violent crimes committed by strangers are extremely rare. But this is of little comfort; a non-zero chance is still a chance, and Berry, like many of us, is plagued by what-ifs.
Berry fixates on the stories of girls and women who haven’t been as lucky as her. The brutal assault of a woman a few miles from Berry’s house in Minneapolis, for example, is a confirmation of her greatest fears. When reflecting on such stories, Berry stumbles into a familiar issue: how to talk about victims of violent crime without making their suffering one’s own. She is aware of this, worrying that “to dwell on her death without knowing her life is to co-opt a tragedy”, but I’m not sure Berry succeeds here — by centering herself in the stories of their suffering, Berry uses other’s trauma to prop up her own fears.
Interspersed between sections of memoir and cultural criticism is the journey of OR-7, the first wild wolf to return to western Oregon since the species was driven to extinction 50 years prior. Berry occasionally returns to the wolf’s story, tracking his quest to find a mate alongside her personal journey. At the time of his journey, OR-7 achieved cult-like status online, heralded as a symbol of hope for biodiversity and conservationism. The unspoken thought seemed to be that if wolves could make it back to Oregon after decades of their species eradication, perhaps other, more sweeping ecological changes could also be possible.
Wolfish is as meandering as its titular animal, which, while possibly intentional, does sometimes make for a frustrating reading experience. The book is home to many a circular argument, with Berry frequently rehashing the same conclusions and observations. It gives the impression that Berry doesn’t trust her readers to retain information or come to any conclusions on their own.
This lack of faith also seems to extend to Berry’s opinion of her own expertise. She often reminds her readers that she is an amateur, not an expert – an insecurity that manifests itself in an overabundance of quotations. Indeed, Berry relies so heavily on the words of others that she ends up crowding out her own voice and perspective. In her attempt to include so many other writers, critics, and academics, she also ends up stripping many quotes of crucial context.
Still, Wolfish is a solid debut from an author whose essay-writing experience is obvious. Berry’s prose is readable and engaging, weaving ecology, sociology, and history into a rich tapestry with her deft use of language. Wolfish is also unique in that it doesn’t set out to solve the complex project of fear itself. Rather, Berry urges us to come to terms with our fears and “exist beside the statistically improbable.” By doing this, we can perhaps learn to better co-exist alongside metaphorical and literal wolves and, in the process, make life better for both species.