In John Smolens’ riveting new novel, Wolf's Mouth, the action begins in 1944, in Camp Au Train, a lumber camp near Munising, Michigan. But it’s not a typical lumber camp. It’s a Prisoner Of War camp, one of the many in Michigan during World War II.
The prisoners are mostly Germans, with a smattering of other nationalities.
But even in an American-run POW camp, the Nazis secretly hold the reins, meting out a cruel justice to anyone who disobeys Kommandant Vogel, a man known for vengeance and violence.
Yet one Italian soldier, Francesco Verdi, dares to defy Vogel. It’s a choice that will have repercussions for the rest of his life. He also happens to be the narrator of Wolf's Mouth.
In one scene at the POW camp, Francesco happens upon a terrifying and transformative sight, a wolf ripping apart a wild hare. He watches, rapt, as the wolf, its snout bloodied, fur hanging from its maw, stares up at him. In Francesco’s words:
There are moments in life when you look into the eyes of another living being… and in that moment you not only see their eyes, but you are looking right into them...You are not yourself, and yet you are, and you feel utterly exposed. Everything is revealed: the truth about you, about what you are and what you aren’t, it’s all there to be witnessed by the eyes that are locked upon yours.
That idea of self, the truth about what we are and what we aren’t, arises repeatedly in Wolf's Mouth.
Certainly for Francesco, especially after he is sentenced to death by Kommandant Vogel in a secret tribunal. His crimes: not putting enough Germans on the camp’s soccer team, and saving the life of an American baby who might some day grow up to fight the Nazis.
Despite the absurdity of his crimes, Francesco has no choice but to escape.
So he takes it on the lam to the Lower Peninsula with the help of a young Italian woman, Chiara Frangiapani. They make it to Detroit where they transform themselves into Frank and Clare Green, a typical hard-working American couple, who just happen to be fugitives.
But Frank/Francesco’s secret self is still waiting to be discovered. A decade after the war, just when Frank thinks he’s escaped his past, it catches up with him. He’s contacted by a government agent, who is less interested in Frank’s offenses, than he is in using him as bait to catch an elusive war criminal. You guessed it: Kommandant Vogel, who is still plotting to execute Frank for his crimes against the Third Reich.
Wolf's Mouth posits the question: Is it even possible to know your true self?
Especially when circumstances force you to change your life, your name, your place on the earth. It also asks what it means to be true to your beliefs, even if, in the case of the Nazi characters, your beliefs are horrific.
The answer is, in Frank’s words:
I came to realize that the only way to survive was to lose who I was, entirely. But survival isn’t enough. You don’t have one life, but many lives to live. With luck, you live them all.
Just when you think the story is over, Smolens skillfully lets it play out even more.
The final movements of the book feel like a scene in a film where the director just keeps shooting, and you feel uneasy, until you realize that these extended moments are where the real story is being told.
Wolf's Mouth is more than just a great read. It’s an historical saga about a lesser-known part of Michigan history. It’s also a war story, a fugitive tale, a romance, and a courtroom drama. But more than anything, it’s the story of one man’s life.
And all the lives that make up that life.
Michael Zadoorian is a Ferndale-based author of two novels, "The Leisure Seeker" and "Second Hand." You can hear his review today on Stateside at 3 p.m.
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