Novel about wolves in the New West
The Loop by Nicholas Evans

Review by Ralph Maughan


The Loop, by Nicholas Evans
Delacorte Press, 1998, 432 pages hardcover, $29.95

A novel about the wolf in the New West

Reviewed by Ralph Maughan

The restoration of wolves to the West has produced a number of books, but now comes a novel by Nicholas Evans, author of the Horse Whisperer.

The Loop is the second "New Western" novel by Evans. Those who follow the wolf restoration will find it fascinating, despite a few defects. Folks will also enjoy picking out the characters because they are modeled in part on people we know or have read about.

Like the Horse Whisperer, the novel is set in Montana, not adjacent to Yellowstone but somewhere not too far away -- the fictional town of Hope, the history of which sounds like Wolf Point to me, for in Hope, the gravel in some roads consists of substantial portions of wolf bones, legacy of a fanatical wolf-killing past.

Despite its past, Hope is changing. Movie stars are buying ranches, and a pack of wolves has returned to the nearby mountains, adding another threat to the local landed gentry. The gentry is personified by Buck Calder, who rides both women and horses as hard as he can.  Not a sensitive horse whisperer, Calder represents the brutal and tyranical rancher who seems to appear in so many real wolf stories -- he hates the government, the damn bunny huggers, the newcomers, and the wolves, which symbolically represent all three. He also hates the new wolf biologist, Helen Ross, who becomes romantically involved with his son, Luke. The young Calder, however, secretly loves the wolves. Luke suffers from a speech impediment that is aggravated in the presence of his father, but it is healed by Ross and the wolves as he struggles to assert himself against his father.

The novel begins with an ambiguous scene where one of the new wolves attacks and kills a faithful dog, right on the porch of Calder's daughter and a few yards from his baby grandson in his carriage. After the beginning scene, I thought the novel might be peddled by the Farm Bureau, but the story's course flows in the opposite direction.

The novel comes to an exciting conclusion. Fortunately nothing like this has happened so far, but it could. In the meantime we become acquainted with a fairly good exposition of Old West thinking in the confusing New West as we follow Buck Calder, and other ranchers, some of whom are quite different from Calder, including one who borders on the mentality of the Freemen/militia folk.

Buck Calder also locates and employs an old "wolfer," a frightening and tragic old man who sets about to employ "the loop," a heinous method of killing wolf pups as they first emerge from the den.

The strongest characters in the book are Luke and the old wolfer. Characterization of some others is at times weak. For example, Helen, the beautiful and brilliant doctoral candidate, suffers from negative self-perception and bad romantic choices. Such a character merits more explanation.

The book is a bit weak in some of the details, perhaps evidence of writing a new work in haste on the heels of the Horse Whisperer. Evans' characterization of environmentalists is the book's weakest part. They serve as a weak foil, remaining in the background as noisy, uniformed outsiders. The novel gives the impression that those who favor the wolf (government biologists aside) engage mostly in ineffectual protesting. However, the hatred of the ranchers stands out. Their motivation is clear -- domination -- the primary reason why the minor predation of real wolves and compensation payments has little effect on their opposition -- wolves aren't real issue.

My conclusion is that most of the people who read my web page will really like this novel, if only for the topic alone.

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Copyright 1998 Ralph Maughan
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