A Brief Sigh of Relief Before…
When Michelle Paver wrote Wolf Brother back in 2004, she couldn’t possibly have known the sighs of relief it would bring to many teachers over ten years later. As the changes in our primary curriculum now require we teach children about The Stone Age in key stage two, and many schools require topics to be linked to a relevant fiction book, this is exactly what has happened for the enlightened. For educators, I’ll return later to the merits of Wolf Brother as a curriculum gem, but for now, the story.
… We Begin
We are utterly thrown into twelve year old Torak’s life as Wolf Brother begins beneath the shadow of death. As the result of a bear attack, Torak’s father is gravely injured. It’s just a matter of time before this bear returns- no ordinary beast it would seem, but something possessed by a greater evil- to finish him. I immediately felt anxious for Torak, wanting him to try to save his father and also to flee the danger of the scene as quickly as he could. He stays at first, torn by love for his dad but knowing he must leave. As time runs out, Torak’s father sets him an important quest. He warns of a time when the demon bear will become invincible, having gained power through destruction. In order to stop the bear, Torak must find the Mountain of the World Spirit. To help him in this task, a guide will find him. We have as little to go on as Torak at this point, so we understand his vulnerability, especially as he leaves his father and finds himself to be ill-prepared for surviving the forest alone.
The story moves at pace and by page eighteen we meet the wolf mentioned in the title- at this point a helpless cub, last remaining of his pack. Paver writes from two viewpoints throughout the book and it’s now that we start to hear our story from the wolf’s perspective. This is really well-considered, with plausible variation in nouns and descriptions to fit the wolf’s character. We also get to see Torak for the first time and how he is perceived by Wolf. Before I was even an hour into the book, I was emotionally invested- and no wonder! Two interesting but highly vulnerable characters thrown together at first in their survival then later in the quest to vanquish the bear.
I have to admit, after the first few chapters I got very involved and was taking Torak and Wolf’s journey a bit too much to heart; so much so that I put the book down for a couple of weeks. Luckily I managed to get a grip, remember about the whole ‘fiction and reality’ concept and continue reading. I guess this can either be seen as evidence of a great story, or a worrying insight into my personality, or maybe a bit of both.
This is a story of companionship (not just with Torak and Wolf, but also with Renn an independent and feisty tribal girl who is introduced early on as part of the group) and also big adventure. Simply described, it’s a quest story- so subsequently it’s packed with challenges, riddles and danger, quick changing settings and hold your breath moments. I’m a massive fan of quest fiction and this is a perfect introduction for children who aren’t quite ready for The Hobbit, Percy Jackson or The Lord of the Rings. It’s also a book that would appeal easily to both boys and girls and would make an exciting story to read out loud (but it’s worth mentioning that the audiobook is read by Sir Ian McKellen and so is bound to be a pretty blooming marvellous narration if you fancy listening along too).
The threat of death from the possessed bear is palpable throughout, and almost dreamlike in its abstraction, but from time to time its power is thrown into focus as we see the results of its rampages. Now it’s worth bearing in mind that, as you’ve probably already noticed, death is not shied away from in Wolf Brother. Paver has really done her research and is right to show it, in the same way it would be trite of David Attenborough to sidestep similar issues in wildlife documentaries. It’s the circle of life folks, and in the Stone Age life and death are handled carefully. For example, if death is imminent for a person, certain preparations have to be made to ensure your three souls remain together after death. If an animal is killed as a means of survival, words are spoken immediately after as a kind of blessing. When Torak kills a deer, we see he ensures all parts of the animal are used in a sign of respect. When the bear kills, the whole forest is shocked as it kills for pleasure. I’d say that though it’s handled well, it could cause younger children worry, so would recommend Wolf Brother to children of nine years plus.
GGGG Wolf Brother is an exciting and compelling story, and it’s part of a series too. Hooray!
And Further Info For Teachers
Much as I’m against tenuous links in the curriculum, the powers that be often declare we attempt to make them. I’ve seen good teachers blanch at the thought of finding a class reader based on a historical topic, or even (heaven forfend) one with a science or geography link. Personally, I’d rather read a book to my class because it’s brilliant and not because it name checks Dr Barnado… I’d rather read them Wonder, The Stick Man with the Big Bum or The London Eye Mystery for the sheer pleasure of it. Imagine that: reading for pleasure! Luckily, Wolf Brother is both a pleasurable read and one which will inspire children to find out more about prehistory. It would make a wonderful class reader or guided reading book and there’s plenty of added value to be had.
A Few Ideas
If I were reading Wolf Brother to my class, I’d be really excited. Apart from the more obvious literacy links to quest stories and PSHE opportunities connected to events in the book, we could:
- Create our own clans based on those in the book
- Make tools or paints and use them
- Create new words for Wolf’s vocabulary, and maybe even visit a wolf at a zoo
- Cook a meal outside
- Look at how Torak and Renn mark the passing of time in Maths and convert it to modern measures
- Study local wild plants and their uses. Go out and find them!
- Set up a trail and do some tracking
- Visit a forest
- Do some howling!
I’m sure you could do much better, but I think there’s a lot of worthwhile fun and learning to be had here. It would also be a fantastic topic for Autumn or Spring as the changes in the weather are reflected in the book and could be used to bring the children closer in understanding to Torak, Renn and Wolf. I’d love to know if you’ve used this book in school or if you’re planning to. I wish I was!