Posted by: billpurdue | February 4, 2011

Bringing back the wolves

Whilst I’ve been investigating what’s new, I’ve also been reading three quite different books.


The first is one I brought back from the USA in 2009 and is about the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. In Shadow Mountain[Anchor Books £10.05 978-0385482264], Renée Askins describes her fifteen year long fight on behalf of wolves  in the face of what seem to be almost insurmountable problems, including hate mail and death threats. As an undergraduate, she was doing research into wolf behaviour and became attached to one particular wolf cub named Natasha who had lost her mother and needed hand rearing. Askins recognised that this little wolf cub was not just something special: she writes “through her I begin to fathom an ancient relationship with the world” . It’s because of Natasha and what she symbolised that Askins was inspired to found the organisation “The Wolf Fund” whose sole purpose was to campaign for the reintroduction of the species in Yellowstone.


Inevitably Askins account of the fifteen years of campaigning is interwoven with events in her personal life. It’s a very eloquent and a rewarding read. So, you may say, why did it take me 18 months or so to finish it? I really can’t explain that, but perhaps there were too many distractions and sometimes I like to have 2 or 3 books “on the go” and this tended to get left by the wayside a few times. The book is available online from


Book number 2 is a short-ish novel. Burnt-out town of miracles  [John Murray  £7.99 9780719521126]  by Roy Jacobsen is set in the Finnish town of Suomussalmi  in the winter of 1939 when an invasion by Russian troops is imminent. The inhabitants decide their only option is to flee after setting fire to their homes. One man however is determined to stay: Timo is presented to the reader as the village idiot, but comes over in the story as a simple, but practical man.


The Russians give Timo a beating, but realise that, as he is a skilled logger, he could be useful to them. They put him  in charge of a small group of Russian deserters  and order him to cut wood for their fires. The deserters come from a variety of backgrounds and all have different reasons for ending up in Soumussalmi. Timo tries to look after and organise them and eventually they start to make plans for an escape. But the war isn’t going well for the Russians  and in their preoccupation with their own survival, they forget about Timo and his team. (click here for information on the battle of Suomussalmi) After the the Russians’ retreat the inhabitants of the town return and ask  Timo how he managed to survive the occupation.  Life gradually settles down but things are never the same again. It’s a novel about how relationships form in unusual circumstances and how the battle for survival in extreme conditions overrides everything else.


The third book takes me back to those old black and white films of the fifties about families who live in ancestral piles in the lovely English countryside – probably RKO radio pictures made a few of them. Norah Lofts’ book Bless this House was first published as a Literary Guild selection in 1954 and that’s probably when my copy, part of the Companion Book Club series, firs t came off the press.


The house in question is Merravay somewhere in leafy Suffolk, built in the time of good Queen Bess. The book begins with the building of Merravay and each episode , as it is called (rather than chapter), is set in a different period of history, when different people and families occupied the house, until we reach the period immediately after the Second World war. Between the ‘episodes’ there is a shorter passage, called an interlude, printed in italics, which ties up loose ends in the previous episode . Apart from the opening episode, each section is narrated in the first person by a woman . It’s a kind of collection of short stories, all with the same house at their focal point and in chronological order.  Norah Lofts used this technique in other novels and it’s one that seems very old fashioned today. In spite of that, I found the book very absorbing, but I don’t think I would hurry to read another novel written in a similar style.


Books in the media

This Saturday on BBC2 at 9pm, Sebastian Faulks will present the first of four programmes on the British novel. Mariella Frostrup interviewed Faulks on Open Book last Sunday and became quite argumentative over a number of topics including whether the concept of the hero in the novel is dead. You can buy the book Faulks on Fiction [BBC Books £20 978-0140108927]


It’s the Raymond Chandler season on BBC Radio4 with a dramatization of the classic detective novel The Big Sleep featuring the Californian private eye Philip Marlowe.  The Big Sleep is still available in paperback [Penguin £8.99 978-0140108927]




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