Once There Wolves a Compelling Short Novel




By Charlotte McConaghy

Flatiron Books, 255 pages.





If you transported Richard Powers to the mystery genre, you might end up with a novel such as Once There Were Wolves.  Australian-born Charlotte McConaghy has penned a novel that’s so good it’s already won a place among the best I will read in 2022. Among her many virtues is the ability to tell a gripping story compactly yet still spool out relevant details and backstories at a deliberate pace that keeps you turning the pages to confirm or dispute what you have inferred.


Initially, Once There Were Wolves seems like the sort of paean to nature that Powers could have written. Its central character Inti Flynn is an eco-warrior. She is in Scotland as part of a four-person team that’s trying to reintroduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands. It would not be too dramatic to call Inti a zealot. The book’s earliest chapters skirt the border of being a treatise on how nature self-heals when ingredients are added back into ecosystems. Inti is not shy in telling nervous locals of all the wonderful things wolves will bring, though all they can imagine is flocks of dead sheep with their throats slashed and entrails spilt.


About the time we are ready to think of this novel as a Scottish version of the battle between scientists and New England lobstermen, McConaghy begins to add ingredients of her own to the novel. We learn that Inti’s mute twin Aggie is with her in Scotland and that Aggie’s silent condition has no physical cause. The two have always been closer to each other than to anyone else in their lives and hints are dropped that something happened to Aggie when she was living in Alaska. Prior to that, Aggie was a lively, carefree young woman.


As noted, though, don’t expect to know the details of that until McConaghy is ready to reveal them. We do learn that the Flynn sisters come from a broken home, but not of the conventional sort. Their father was a tree hugger in British Columbia who was so over the top that he believed his environmental activism would single-handedly save the world. It was he who taught Inti much about surviving in the wild. By contrast, their mother is a cop in Sydney, Australia, who specializes in misogynistic crimes. It was she who helped Inti cope with an affliction; she has mirror-touch synesthesia–a condition linked to hyper-empathy syndrome–and literally feels the pain of other people and animals. If Aggie burnt her right hand, Inti also experienced it.


Things are not exactly going well in the Cairngorms of Scotland. Several locals led by Red McCrae and Stuart Burns have raised the rabble to staunch opposition to the wolves and Burns has shot one he claims strayed onto his land. That’s rubbish, but local police superintendent Duncan Mactavish can’t prove otherwise and has to talk Inti down from her high horse. (Another kind of horse factors into the story!) He and Inti are also attracted to each other, so Duncan faces a tough task. It doesn’t help that Inti is convinced that Stuart has been beating Lainey, his wife, and it gets very complicated when Stuart disappears. Author Nicholas Sparks once called small-town gossip the “toxic waste” of such places, an apt way of thinking of a Highland hamlet smaller than its nearby “large” town of Abernethy (pop. 945).


At this juncture, McConaghy begins to reveal more about Inti, Aggie, Duncan, Burns, and several of the other locals. The experience of reading Once There Were Wolves is a bit like watching a painter whose landscape we only see late in the process, as the artist lays on each of the colors one at a time. You can be excused if you conclude that humans are more vicious than wolves.


McConaghy keeps us guessing to the end and even if you do manage to unravel a mystery or two, their details will probably spin differently than you imagined. The final pages are a tad too abrupt in their sunny optimism given the darkness of what comes before. Yet, the ending is also probably just as you would have wished it. Again, one can only applaud Charlotte McConaghy’s concision. She tells a compelling tale in 255 pages when too many writers take twice as long to say half as much.


Rob Weir








The Narrow Margin a Wonderful Overlooked Noir Classic




Directed by Richard Fleischer

RKO Pictures, 71 minutes, not-rated.

★★★★ ½




Film noir had peaked in popularity by the time The Narrow Margin appeared in 1952. Very few film fans now recognize names such as Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, or Jacqueline White and even in their day they were considered second-tier actors. Too bad on all fronts, as The Narrow Margin ranks among the best of forgotten film noir classics.


As is generally the case, the narrative arc seems simple, though you can rest assured that there are plenty of twists. LAPD Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (McGraw) and his partner Sergeant Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) have been sent to Chicago to provide bodyguard duty for Mrs. Frankie Neal (Windsor), the widow of a mobster who has turned state’s evidence. She has a payoff list found among her dead husband’s effects whose contents would cripple a major crime syndicate. As a cab drops off Brown and Forbes in front of the safe house, we hear a much-quoted line that’s vintage noir. When Brown ponders what Mrs. Neal is like, Forbes predicts, “She’s the sixty-cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.”


Things go wrong from the start. Forbes is murdered as the trio descends a dark stairwell and, though Brown wounds him, the assassin flees. It’s 1952, so the journey from Chicago back to California is by train, not an airplane. Brown faces the daunting task of single-handedly keeping Neal safe. His heart isn’t into it, as his dead partner left behind a wife and three kids, and Neal is a major piece of disagreeable work. She’s acid-tongued, demanding, and has the charm of an enraged hornet. Brown has a double compartment and he shoves Neal into one of them and tells her to lock the door and keep quiet. As if that will happen.


Brown cases the cars, identifies a known hoodlum, and fingers several others he suspects are hoods, including the nosy and rotund Sam Jennings (Paul Maxey). Brown also can’t help noticing an attractive blond named Ann Sinclair (White) who is traveling with her young son Tommy and a nanny. Focus Walter! It takes several days to make such a trip in 1952, and are were several stops along the way, any one of which raises the odds that more gun thugs will come aboard. He’s even openly approached by mobster Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco), who’d rather settle matters amicably; he offers Brown a $30,000 bribe to reveal where he has stashed Neal. It’s tempting when your client is contemptible.


Will Neal or Brown make it to LA? The Narrow Margin is a taut 71 minutes, most of which takes place inside a train. Credit goes to the direction of Richard Fleischer for keeping tension levels so high that the train’s cramped compartments, berths, and corridors never make the film seem claustrophobic. To be sure, there are MacGuffins and red herrings throughout Earl Felton’s screenplay. In retrospect, there are two major logic errors in the film but as Alfred Hitchcock observed, if directors do their jobs well, viewers won’t notice. Fleischer did his job very well.


Rob Weir



Now on View at the Hood Art Museum



Hood Art Museum

Hanover, New Hampshire

On View Now


The ultimate zero-sum-game is the attempt to rank comparative oppressions. Oppression is oppression.  I say this because my next comment might otherwise seem insensitive. In today’s (Dis)United States, Latinos are now the largest minority group. Other high-profile movements include Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Stop AAPI Hate, pro-choice activists, and transgender rights groups. Conspicuous by its relative absence is the minority group that is at or near the bottom of0 virtually every negative social indicator: Native Americans. About the only thing that hits the news is when some sports team decides to drop a stereotypical mascot, something that should have been done five decades ago.


A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum. The college used to have teams called the Indians, but now it has the remarkable Jami Powell (Osage) as its Curator of Indigenous Art. If you think it doesn’t matter if such a person is part of a museum’s staff, I invite you to drive to Hanover, New Hampshire, and then make such a statement.


The Hood is about install a piece from Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith titled Trade Canoe: Forty Days and Forty Nights. I was lucky enough to arrive just before the holiday break. Trade Canoe wasn’t yet on view, but most of the supporting exhibit was and I caught a preview. Here are just a few works of art that reminded me anew of how important it is to change the proverbial frame. 




Take this powerful work from Yatika Starr Fields (Osage/Creek/Cherokee) titled White Buffalo Calf Women March. You will notice that the three women are literally cut off at the knees. How appropriate for those marching to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline that would bisect Lakota land. Alas, as of now the go ahead has been given for this needless oil pipeline. Is the white flag a sign of surrender? Maybe not. Notice it is held by what appears to be a pair of ghostly hands. Is it really that the sky and the flag and reflected in water? If so, why would a paved highway run into that water? Another way of looking at it is that the surrender flag has been cast down. Are the hands the ghosts of ancestors? 




Subhankar Banerjee was born in India and is not Native American, but her photograph Known and Unknown Tracks is another reminder of what happens when we place oil ahead of indigenous rights or environmentalism. The wide expanse you see is the area near Teshepuk Lake in north-central Alaska. As you look at it, do you need me to remind you of the fragility of the tundra? Don’t fall for the malarkey that oil companies erase their eco-footprints.




Cara Romero (Chemehuevi) punctuates this in Oil Boom, a photographic “dreamscape” sandwich. Is the figure in the sepia water being born or drowning? 




Arthur Amiotte (Lakota) offers a more conventional collage of layered photos and print clippings in Saint Agnes Manderson, S. D. Pine Ridge Rez. Manderson is a town in South Dakota and the composition is a take on the complicated issue of assimilation. Spend some time with this. Embedded within is a history lesson involving missionaries, schools that sought to obliterate Lakota culture, Natives who assimilated, those who partially did so, and traditionalists. It often confuses whites when they encounter Natives with Anglo-sounding names like Arthur who ID as Native. Now you know why. 




In 2018, T C Cannon (Kiowa) was the subject of a fabulous retrospective at the Peabody Essex Museum. At the Hood we see his 1977 acrylic work Taos Winter Night. According to the curators, the spots might echo participation in a Sun Dance ritual. It can also be enjoyed on its own for its strong compositional elements. 




Roxane Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo)–see what I mean about names–works in ceramics. Her Sitting on My Mother’s Back is figurative on many levels: woman as nurturer, shelter, defiant figure, Mother Earth….  I couldn’t stop looking at this one. 




Swentzell collaborated with Rose Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo) on the 21-foot-long Timeline Necklace. It’s a mixed media combination of ceramics, wood, wire, leather, and rope that also looks at women and motherhood. It also contains subtle reminders of single women, poverty, and resilience.




Leave it the dynamic Faith Ringgold to connect the color dots. She is African American and better known as a quilter, but her photolithograph United States of Attica, was made in 1972. It was inspired by the infamous 1971 prison riot that left 43 people dead and 91 wounded. It reminds us that H. Rap Brown (now Jamil Al-Amin) was right to assert that “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” This closeup is part of a larger map in the Pan-African colors of red and green and shows the toll in the Southeast.


I have loved Inuit art since the days when I taught high school Canadian studies. The Hood show Inuit Art/Inuit Quajimajatuqangit samples Inuit works on paper and stone carving.


I invite you to draw your own meanings from the following pieces, which I have labeled by artist (if known).  


Helen Kalvak Nightmare  


Sarah Joe Qinujua Ready to Leave for the Hunt