Once upon a different time, there was a girl who lived in a kingdom of death. Wolves howled up her arm. A whole pack of them – made of tattoo ink and pain, memory and loss. It was the only thing about her that ever stayed the same.
Germany, 1956. Over ten years since the Nazis won the war.
Seventeen-year-old Yael is part of the resistance, and she has just one mission: to kill Hitler.
But first she’s got to get close enough to him to do it.
I wasn’t exactly looking for a novel to restore my faith in the potential of YA, but if I had been (and lately my faith and enthusiasm have been seriously tested), then Wolf by Wolf, by Ryan Graudin, would have done the job.
I haven’t felt like this at the end of a book since Six of Crows. I need the sequel, and whether I want to or not, I know I will spend the next few months speculating on where Yael’s future lies.
Yael is a complex and carefully written protagonist. She escaped from a concentration camp as a child, was later found by the resistance and has been with them ever since. What the resistance don’t know right away is that she escaped by changing her face. She was experimented on in the camp. A doctor infected her with bacteria and injected her with chemicals until she turned into something new – a skinshifter.
Yael is driven by loss – she literally wears it on her skin. Her tattoos signify those she has lost to Hitler and his regime. Her ever changing face symbolises the self she lost when she entered the camp and numbers were inked onto her arm in place of a name.
She’s known since she was very young that she would be the one to kill Hitler. She’s just been waiting for the opportunity.
Yael is the perfect mix of cold motivation, aching loss and curious longing.
I loved reading her. The chapters of the book are split into sections of Then and Now. Now being current events of course, and Then descriptions of her life in the concentration camp, and the resistance after it. Each section serves as a building block to Yael’s personality. Nothing that she did or felt didn’t make sense to me, nothing felt too quick. At least in my own reading lately, that’s been pretty rare.
Graudin is really great at setting the pace of relationships. In the Then sections of the book, in the brief time we spent with those we already knew Yael was going to lose, we got a complete sense of their character. Their loss is still felt, even though it was inevitable. On the other hand in the Now, the relationships Yael builds while using someone else’s face – people the girl whose face she wears knows already – are slower to connect. She is so preoccupied with pretending to know them and thinking that the brief sketches of their lives provided for her by the resistance are enough, that it takes the actual them a while to break through. And when it happens, Yael – and me, honestly – finds that she has started to care without even realising.
Which is how most relationships actually work. People get under your skin. It’s usually a slow process, rather than the instant attraction that we see in a lot of novels. And I’m not just talking about romantic relationships.
I also think it was really clever how Graudin used Wolf by Wolf as a means to explore different conceptions of identity. The initial purpose of the experiments on Yael were to make her appear Aryan. As a result, Yael’s existence undermines the belief system Hitler has built. If Aryan is something that can be faked, what does it mean? Nothing, obviously. Yael’s ability to skinshift, as Graudin puts it ‘highlights the absurdity of racial superiority.’
It also asks the question: are we defined by our outside?
I really enjoyed the way that Graudin extended this conversation to the Hitler youth. Walking in to the situation, Yael believed that the young blondes of the Hitler Youth were fully signed up Nazis, but on getting to know them found them to be more than the uniforms they wore. Small acts of defiance like smoking built an emerging sense of disrespect for the regime. A desire to bite off the hand that force fed them, I guess.
There is so much in this book.
In addition to everything I’ve already talked about, it is a story of bravery and adventure and will have you turning the pages long after you were supposed to go to bed because you have to get up for work in the morning, supposed grown up.
Just read it. I would love to talk about it with you.