Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Wolves of Mercy Falls

In an attempt to enter into and better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit the latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at how the story reflects and shapes  the readers' worldview.

There will be spoilers.
Maggie Stiefvater has written a a trilogy entitled The Wolves of Mercy Falls.  While her latest, The Scorpio Races, has her on the front pages of literary news, this trilogy has excelled as well. 


Grace lives in Mercy Falls.  As a child, she was bitten by what she now knows to be werewolves.  She never turned, but the connection between herself and one wolf in particular is undeniable.  That wolf saved her from the rest of the pack’s ferocity, and now he lingers at the periphery of Boundary Woods, watching and protecting her still.
When her guardian werewolf reverts to human form and introduces himself, the unobtainable becomes real.  Sam and Grace can finally love each other.  Unfortunately, Sam has this bad habit of reverting to the wolf, and Grace can feel the inevitable rise of the animal within her as well. 
Can two people so badly damaged find true love?  Can Sam and Grace find a way to put the monster behind them and become fully human? And will they live long enough to find out? 
Based on interviews, Mrs. Stiefvater wanted to capture (among other things) the war inside between the human and animal parts of our nature, and as such the story starkly addresses moral dilemmas and murky lines between truth and lies. She noted in an interview with Teen Ink, “I wish teens would step outside themselves and see how their actions are really affecting themselves and others — and then do their best to be heroes in their own lives.” 
That’s not a bad goal. The question is whether or not she achieved it.


The Wolf

As far as literary devices go, the metaphor of the wolf is a great way to explore a dark side of human nature that we are inclined to desire or indulge. 
As Grace gets closer to changing, she sees that “there was something invisible and dangerous lurking inside me, and I was done being good.”  Wolves have no sense of boundaries, which is why they are in trouble.  They keep leaving Boundary Woods and ravaging the neighborhood pets – and sometimes people. This is a problem in itself.  But the book introduces a philosophical rabbit hole that may go much deeper than just physical transformation. 
“In the end, we’re wolves. I can read him (Sam) German poetry and Paul can teach him about participles and you can play Mozart for him, but in the end, it’s a long, cold night and those woods for all of us.”  So says one werewolf in a speech that sounds a lot like Dawkin’s view of the universe, or Cormac McCarthys’ view of life in Sunset Limited.  Are we all just animals in the end? If this is true, no wonder “Hope hurts more than cold.”
However, that’s not the final word in the story.  Sam believes that “It doesn’t make you a monster.  It just takes away your inhibitions…if you are naturally angry or violent, it gets worse.”  In other words, the wolf reveals us for who we really are – it supersizes us.  In this series, the wolf is not automatically evil; it is a way in which to see what the primal “you” is really like when stabilizing societal influences disappear.
Grace feels something dangerous lurking inside her as a human.  No wonder she fears the wolf.  Not only will it take her away from Sam, it will reveal her for who she truly is – for better or worse.

Mercy Falls

Mercy Falls can be understood two ways. First, there is mercy, and it is raining down in the form of Grace.  She loves, cares, and understands.  She sees through the monster and into the real Sam.  She loves in spite of fear; she forgives in spite of hurt; she is loyal when it seems pointless. 
Second, mercy could be collapsing. Within the pack there are those who wish to destroy Grace and Sam.  Within the families, parents seem unwilling or unable to show compassion to those most in need of it.  Within the community, no one seems to care about anything but killing the things that break their boundaries.

Mrs. Stiefvater has noted in interviews that choosing a character’s name is very important to her. This story provides the opportunity to create a character – Grace - whose name matches her identity.  A life without Grace would truly be hell; by contrast, a life full of Grace would be heaven.   Sam notes of Grace, “She’d fallen in love with me as a wolf. Without words. Seeing beyond the obvious meaning of the wolf skin to what was inside. To whatever it was that made me Sam, always.”
When Sam tells Isabel, “[Cole’s] not good for anyone,” she responds, “Neither were you.”Apparently Grace saw a side of Sam that no one else did. Is Grace sufficient to save even the wolves among us?

Boundary Woods

When the series begins, the wolves have broken the safety of the boundary and infringed on the community around them. The results have not been pretty.  Beck, their father figure and leader, tries to teach them boundaries when they are human.  Unfortunately, knowledge does not necessarily change character.  Every winter his students return to the woods once more, smarter as humans but no less changed deep inside.  The woods are no longer lovely, dark, and deep.  They are just darker, and they cannot contain the beasts within.
The story is packed with issues of boundaries.  I’m not sure if the author intends for the issues to merely resonate (which they do), or if she is suggesting a way out of the moral dilemmas that accompany a life without borders.

Parents without Boundaries

In an interview with Read Alert, Mrs. Stiefvater gave some insight into the parents in the Wolves of Mercy Falls:
     “After Shiver I was doing school visits for Lament and Ballad, and… one of the first school visits I did was for a senior high with 3,000 senior high students – 17 and 18 year olds… So I was in there and I parked my little diesel Volkswagon in the parking lot next to the BMWs and the Audis and, I mean – these are the student’s cars. And you go in there and they’ve got everything they want, these kids. They’ve got cell phones, they’ve got laptops, they just don’t have parents, because their parents are all federal contractors and things like that – these kids are latch-key kids as soon as they hit age 16, because their parents had them really young and had lives of their own like “Awesome, here are the keys, we’re gonna go out and see this show. Be home by 11pm, but of course we won’t be back until 1am.” 
And so these kids were raising themselves. It was like Lord of the Flies. Because they were trying to navigate horrible high school with no guidance whatsoever. And so there were these cliques, and these failed relationships they started having when they were 14, and you’re like “Oh my God!”. Grace’s parents were these parents… I followed a girl whose parents were Grace’s parents. I was like “Your parents are awful – they’re going in these books.”
Sam describes Grace’s “parental units”as "busy little brainless birds, fluttering in and out of their nest at all hours of the day and night, so involved in the pleasure of nest building that they hadn’t noticed that it had been empty for years.”  Grace longs for her parents to acknowledge her and care about her. In the midst of a heated debate, Grace says: “I would say that by virtue of you not acting parental up to this point, you’ve relinquished your ability to wield any power now…. Pick one, guys.  Parents or roommates. You can’t be one and then suddenly be the other.” When Grace disappears for a while, Sam writes a song about her parents: “You can’t lose a girl you misplaced years before.  Stop looking.”
 In a rather poignant scene, Grace’s mom explains to Sam what had undermined her relationship with Grace.
     “I didn’t think I was being a horrible mother.  My parents never gave me any privacy. They read every book I read.  Went to every social event I went to.  Strict curfew.  I lived under a microscope until I got to college and then I never went home again.  I still don’t talk to them.  They still look at me under that giant glass. I thought we were great, me and Lewis.  As soon as Grace started wanting to do stuff on her own, we let her.  I won’t lie – I was really happy to have my social life back, too.  But she was doing great. Everyone said that their kids were acting out or doing badly in school.  If Grace had started doing badly, we would’ve changed….”
So, a mom whose parents created oppressive boundaries removed all boundaries from her daughter.  Grace’s grandparents missed the moral forest by focusing on the trees; Grace’s parents took all the trees away, not realizing the forest would dissolve as well.

Emotions without Boundaries
Grace’s emotional boundaries collapse when Sam emerges from the woods. When Sam is around everything else fades into the background.  School is unimportant, an “alien planet” where nobody understands the truly important things in life; her parents are irrelevant; her friendships all secondary.  When Grace says she is in love with Sam, he responds, “It’s…an obsession.”  Grace quickly agrees.
 Many times, Grace’s emotions overflow.  She seems to be far more easily moved by passion than reason.  (She’s a teenager; I get it.  This certainly resonates.)  It was hard to see whether or not readers are to interpret this as okay, or an unfortunate result of a dysfunctional family life.

Sex without Boundaries
 Mrs. Stiefvater said in an interview with YA Bookshelf, “I needed to change the metaphor (instead of a fear of giving into the sexual, violent beast inside all of us, it was more of a bittersweet losing your identity, like teens have to worry about in our suburban world).”
I’m not sure this was at all clear in the book. Though Grace is a virgin, after a scene with lingering sexual tension she felt something that “gnawed inside of me, hungry and waiting.” At that point, “reason won over.” That does not last.  Grace pushes Sam relentlessly.  Sam, to his credit, resists her advances for a while, saying, “I want to do things right with you. I only get this one chance…”  At one point Grace apologizes for pushing his boundaries, then several pages later pushes them again.  When Sam resists, she registers her disappointment.
Eventually, of course, they sleep together.  Grace pushes the issue, and Sam says, “You greatly overestimate my self-control.”  Grace responds, “I’m not looking for self-control.” She gets her wish. “I  (Sam) shrugged off my skin with a growl, giving in, neither wolf nor man, just Sam.” 
 I don’t think that changed the metaphor successfully.
Did I say that activity like this has other boundaries that come with it, such as legal ones?  Sam is 18 and Grace is 17. That’s a real life woods with a boundary patrolled by police officers, very angry parents, and a lot of young mothers who wish they had a do-over. 
The day after they sleep together, Sam expresses regret, noting that it’s hard to imagine he has any principles left after sleeping with Grace the night before. He broke the law; he slept with a minor in her own bedroom after sharing a room with her for weeks; he is driving an even greater wedge between her and her parents; he recognizes what he did was not noble.  In fact, in order to have sex with her, he had to drop all his human inhibitions and revert to the wolf. No wonder he has regrets. He’s trying to put the wolf away.

A Future with Boundaries: “This could be mine forever.”

 As the story progresses, they both realize they long to be married.
 “Sam, are you going to marry me?” Suddenly, the world seemed like a promising, friendly place.  Suddenly I saw the future, and it was a place I wanted to be. “I mean, instead of living in sin.”
 And then I did laugh, even though the future was a dangerous place, because I loved her, and she loved me, and the world was beautiful and awash with pink light around us. “Okay,” I said, “It’s a deal.”
“Do you really mean it?  Don’t say it if you don’t really mean it.”
“I really mean it.”
“Okay,” Grace said, and just like that she seemed content and solid, certain of my affections."
In Shiver, when Sam and Grace dance in the kitchen, he thinks the good life “consists of moments like these.”  In Forever he sets his sights higher: “I could look forward to years of Christmases with this girl in my arms, the privilege of growing old in this unfamiliar skin of mine.  I knew that I had everything.”

The last thing he gives her is a ring as a promise of their future. 

The Characters of Mercy Falls
I can’t address all of them, so I will focus on a few key people who represent very divergent views of what we should do with the wolf within us and the wolves among us.

Shelby: Embrace the Wolf

“Being a wolf is a gift… She had a bad life, I think, before she came to the pack. She likes being a wolf.  She likes belonging.”  So thinks Shelby, whose goal is to rule the pack. The wolf allows her to live by instinct and exercise fully the will to power.  Perhaps because life controlled her she longed for a life she can control – her terms, her pack, her woods.  Now she has it, but it’s not all she thought it would be. 

Cole: Redeem the Wolf

Cole St. Clare started much the same way, at first. He willingly became a wolf to escape a life that was destroying him and those around him.  At one point during his human phase he remembers his past addictions, and when Isabel asks if turning into a wolf and “losing yourself” scares him, he responds, “That’s what I’m hoping for.”
But Cole has a “come to Jesus” moment, or at least a moment in which he invokes that name.  As he is shifting from wolf to human, he realizes he had killed a deer and begun feasting on it while it was still alive.  He didn’t stop when he turned human. The doe had “resigned herself to the fate of being eaten alive… I wanted to back away, give her space, let her escape, but the exposed bones and spilled guts told me flight was impossible for her.  I’d already ruined her body…. I felt a bitter smile twist my lips.  Here it was, my brilliant plan to stop being Cole and slip into oblivion.  Here I was. Standing naked and painted with death…”
He makes connections with the wolf he has become with the wolf he was: “I thought about…. my mother’s face when I told her she could go to hell with Dad.  The countless girls waking up to find out they’d slept with a ghost, because I was already gone, if not in actuality, in some spiraling trip contained in a bottle or syringe.  The way that Angie had one hand pressed flat against her breastbone when I told her I’d cheated on her.”
He remember telling his ex-girlfriend Angie that he was thinking about killing himself, and she responded:
“’That’s the way you’ll be remembered. That, and hell. You still believe in that, right?’
I’d lost my cross somewhere on the road. That chain had broken and now it was probably in some gas station bathroom or tangled in hotel sheets or kept as some shining souvenir by someone I hadn’t meant to leave it with.‘Yeah,’ I said, because I still believed in hell. It was heaven I wasn’t so sure about anymore.”
But after embracing the wolf initially, Cole realizes he had merely substituted one addiction for another. Drugs and the wolf both allowed him to escape reality. He decides to stop running and commit himself to becoming a new man. We learn he was raised Catholic, and he begins to carry a rosary with him again. When Isabel tries to seduce him, he refuses, noting: 
“I’m trying to remember how to be a decent person, okay? I’m trying to remember who I was before I couldn’t stand myself… You don’t want to sleep with me. You don’t want to lose your virginity to some screwed-up singer. It’ll make you hate yourself for the rest of our life. Sex does that. It’s pretty awesome that way. You just don’t want to feel anything, and it’ll work for about an hour. But then it’ll be worse. Trust me.”
Isabel: Desire the Wolf
Speaking of Isabel, her character hates Cole St. Clair’s transformation into a moral person.  She can’t stand that “he was somehow getting himself together when I couldn’t.”  He refuses to sleep with her – or, as he would put it, to use her.  Rather than appreciating his attempt to be noble, she lashes out at him.  As she watches him go through the turmoil of tough moral choices, she takes pleasure in his brokenness and anguish.  
By the end of Forever, she seems to understand.  Cole St. Clair shows her what mercy and grace look like, and his life offers hope that she, too, can be free of her past.

Beck: Perpetuate the Wolf
Beck is a confusing character.  On the one hand, he loves the werewolves.  He educates, trains, guides, provides, and probably even loves them all.  He fathers them well.  However, he is also responsible for turning quite a few of them into werewolves.  Sam, in fact, was targeted specifically.  When he finds out that Beck, the father who adopted him when Sam’s parent’s tried to kill him, was the one responsible for turning him – well, that’s rough. 
I wonder if Beck doesn’t stand in for many parents today (or at least how kids view their parents).  We ought to love them, because they are our parents, and in many ways they are awesome. But they can turn us into monsters in some ways , too.  Grace and Olivia struggle with the legacy their parents have given them;  Beck’s werewolf legacy just makes the metaphor more profound.

Sam and Grace: Overcome the Wolf
Sam understands the importance of boundaries (Boundary Woods); he knows what it is like to respect authority (or at least Beck); he cares for and protects even those who are obnoxious or just plain bad (St. Clair and Shelby); he knows what it is like to lose his parents both emotionally and physically.  He is empathetic, noble, kind, selfless, brave and true.
Even though he wants to be mean to Grace’s parents, he decides to talk with her mom, because “I hated knowing what I wanted and knowing what was right and knowing that they weren’t the same thing.”   He harbors Grace for a time when she leaves her home, but tells her, “That’s now how you want it to end. You know I’d love to have you with me, and it will be that way one day.  But this isn’t the way it ought to happen.”
There was a lot to like about Sam’s character.  His intents were noble, even if his moral fortitude failed at times.  He did not shy away from conflict within himself or with others, and committed himself to seeing things through to the end.

When we meet Grace, she is  is angry, self-centered, and obsessed with Sam.  Her goals have to do with self-fulfillment;  she shies away from conflict, and when it happens, she has no ability to calmly and productively work through it. (I’m not saying it’s her fault. I’m just sayin.’)
As she feels the wolf rise within her, she fears it – not because it’s necessarily bad, but because Sam is no longer a wolf.  All she desires is life with Sam, and anything that stands between the two of them will feel the force of her anger.
This does not bode well for her transformation.  If Sam is right, and taking on the wolf means dropping inhibitions and exposing one’s deepest character, Grace is going to be one very unhappy – and perhaps dangerous - wolf.  
But when she turns, she is not like that at all. Mrs. Stiefvater has noted how much her characters change, and here Sam is clearly having an influence on Grace.  She is becoming a better person.  So are Cole St. Clair and Olivia.  I love that part of this series – our history is not our destiny.  The trajectory of the characters’ lives is good. 
I see a story that resonates with the often painful realities of life, but if read carefully points toward a future in which we can transcend our past. History is not destiny.  Cole St. Clair can change into an honorable man; Isabel’s reason can stabilize her emotion; Grace and Isabel can at least begin to mend their relationship with their parents; Sam and Grace can find an enduring love in spite of the monsters within.
There is such a thing as redemption, after all.

I really want to like this series. I liked Cole St. Clair, and I like the homage to a love that can survive a past forced upon us by our parents, a present characterized by instability, and a future full of uncertainty. Truly, we need Grace in a world where Mercy so easily falls.
As a Christian, I am a big fan of both Grace and Mercy.  Jesus himself said, "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy."
(Matthew 6:7) When we are in trouble we should seek God so that “we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
To the extent that this series highlighted mercy (you don't get the punishment you deserve) and grace (unmerited favor), I appreciated its message.  Without grace, we are doomed to wallow in our failures.  Without mercy, we are doomed to pay for them all.
However, I can’t help but notice the Bible includes another word in conjunction with mercy and grace: truth.
  • "Don’t let mercy and truth forsake you…inscribe them upon your heart."
(Proverbs 3:4)
  • "Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other," (Psalms 85:10).
  •  Jesus was “full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
To understand the importance of truth as a foundational principle, note this interesting bit of advice for recovering addicts:
“Without grace there would be no acceptance or forgiveness. Without truth there would be no encouragement or durable dreams. Without truth there would be no forgiveness either, since there would be nothing to forgive, or wrong issues would be forgiven. Only issues that contain elements of wrongdoing need to be forgiven, and wrongdoings would not exist without truth - or they would be defined whimsically. The whimsical definition of truth - actually truths - is often present in dysfunctional and/or selfish relationships - and without grace. Safe people are those who demonstrate grace and truth. Without grace there would be no rest, and without truth there would be no hope.”
When it comes to the intersection of mercy and truth, Josh Glaser has noted:
“To be truly merciful, mercy needs truth. Where mercy’s focus is easing pain, truth’s focus is exposing and dealing with the source of the problem…Truth empowers mercy to be truly merciful. Whether receiving mercy for yourself or letting it arise in you for the good of another, you need more mercy, not less. A shallow mercy will not do."
What are we left with when truth does not stabilize a story of grace and mercy? A story in which a lonely seventeen-year-old girl becomes obsessed with a dangerous boy her parents don’t want her to love; who invites him into her room and then her bed; who lashes out at anyone who questions the wisdom in this; who breaks the legal, emotional, sexual, familial, and community boundaries in her life for the sake of Sam; and who cannot seem to extend grace and mercy to others who are in just as much need of these gifts as Sam.

This is a haunting story of one Grace more than a generous grace; of a beautiful Mercy that falls mostly  on the deserving; of a woods populated with wolves both lupine and human, and of saints who rise from the ruins of their own lives.

I must add the truth I wish could have been embedded more deeply: grace is for all, mercy exists for the underserving, and all of us can become saints who transcend the wolf within us and forgive the wolves around us.

I must add that.  

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