When I was in elementary school, I adopted a wolf. Unfortunately, this is not a children’s novel where together we race through woods and streams, our teeth bared and our heads thrown back to howl at the sky. I sent some money to a wolf sanctuary in California, and in return, they sent me a photograph of “my” wolf along with an information sheet. I had just graduated from an infatuation with rabbits to the peculiar draw of the predator: beauty and fear; compulsion and revulsion. I placed the photograph on my corkboard, a gray wolf staring at the camera with an expression both regal and detached, a clear foreshadowing of my obsession with lions. (Later would come dragons and only much later would come actual human males.) I stared at my wolf daily, tracing the line of its back, noting the ways it was like a dog and the ways it was not, and one day I asked my parents if, instead of Maine or New Hampshire or Florida, our family vacation this year could be to California. I imagined walking through the wildlife preserve, springs of grass tickling the spaces between my flip-flops, and then, in an outcropping of rock, coming upon my wolf. I imagined there would be some kind of sign, a clear delineation of my wolf from all the others: Here Be Melissa Pasterkiewicz’s Wolf. Of course my parents said no. Later, I was even more crestfallen when I learned that this wolf not really mine, that the sanctuary sent that same photograph to countless other children as well.
Beauty and fear. Compulsion and revulsion. The shattering of one’s tenuous reality. All of these are subjects explored in Christy Crutchfield’s sparsely beautiful novel, How To Catch a Coyote. In this novel, an event occurs that changes the course of a family. Crutchfield deftly explores the perspective of each character to show how the event impacts them, how they define and redefine themselves and each other, how they continue to shuffle forward. The novel shifts both time and perspective with each chapter, though the year is always clearly identified to prevent confusion. In the first chapter, Daniel, the son and character who most feels like our protagonist, helpfully defines each section of years:
1987-1997— the Fine Years
1996—The year when, well
1998-2005—The Flat Years
If ever a reader is confused about a particular year, he or she need only refer back to this handy chart. And though the event is never directly named or shown, enough information is given in this early chapter for the reader to understand precisely what it is. Much like the coyotes in the book, the event is constantly referred to, constantly obsessed over, but never truly seen. This inability to speak directly to the event, this tendency to dodge objectivity, this inability to shine a light on what most haunts the family pervades each character’s narrative. In correlation with this, the prose style is sparse; telling details are often juxtaposed against each other in an associative fashion and left to the reader to interpret.
He hopes the bridge feels like something, besides broken-down. When he looks at things through other people’s eyes, he always finds the problems. The bridge would look more important if the water were rushing by, if it were made of stone instead of iron, if they had something to do besides look at it.
And you’re not supposed to touch a virgin. There isn’t a word for a girl who isn’t a virgin anymore.
In addition to changing time and perspective, each character tells their story through a different narrative format. Daniel’s story is told through a straightforward third-person narrative, which perhaps also adds to the feeling that he is our main story-teller. The mother’s narrative is a series of instructions written in second-person, reminiscent of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” This narration style makes sense for a woman who was forced to take on a heavy load of responsibility at an early age, and even more after the event, who is attempting to both frame and deny her own culpability. The father’s narrative is a series of third-person vignettes organized under a constantly-changing title, which is the only portion of the book where the artifice of the structure feels most apparent. Though the one moment of repetition in the titles is used to great emotional effect, the choice of titles feels more like an authorial choice imposed on the character than one arising naturally from the character’s emotional state.
Finally, and most compellingly, Dakota, Daniel’s sister, never narrates her own sections. Instead, her sections are narrated by ancillary people in her life, and all of the people in her life are ancillary. Each of her sections shows an individual—a young teacher, a boyfriend, a girlfriend—showing how Dakota has impacted their life and attempting to understand and get close to her. This attempt to understand Dakota, the person at the heart of the family event, pervades all of the characters’ narratives, and similar to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Crutchfield was smart to never show us Dakota’s thoughts, only her words and actions, so that we too must interpret Dakota from these meager and often contradictory offerings. Likewise similar to “A Rose for Emily,” this narration style implicates the reader in the same oversimplifications and objectifications of this character. However, both Emily and Dakota find ways to rebel against the classifications imposed on them, the subtle attempt to strip them of autonomy and control.
Last night, he waited until she could only look to her side, until her shoulders rounded down, and she leaned into his chest as he helped her to bed. He felt her fingernails in his shirt, keeping her standing.
He likes her best this way.
Last night, the Katydid chirped, and she said, “That’s the worst sound ever.” He said, “It’s nice. It’s a song.” But she said, “It’s not nice when it’s in the apartment. It doesn’t want to be in here.”
The final portion of the book is a section written by Daniel for a class project entitled The Encyclopedia of Coyotes. These sections ostensibly narrate details of the coyotes’ infringement onto residential properties, including Daniel’s neighborhood, that can be subtlety correlated with character arcs by an attentive reader. Happily, these correlations are not so overt as to suggest the thesis statement of a 9th grade literary analysis.
From The Encyclopedia of Coyotes
They look like wolves but are the size of collies. They look friendly until your headlights hit their eyes and their eyes shine back. The hair on their necks doesn’t stand up. They aren’t ever afraid. Maybe this is adaptability.
Subtle and wise, sparse and beautiful, gripping and evasive, How to Catch a Coyote is yet another winner from Publishing Genius, and a book I wholeheartedly recommend.
About the reviewer:
Melissa Reddish graduated with an MFA from American University in 2008. Her stories, poems, and reviews have appeared in print and online. A flash fiction chapbook titled The Distance Between Us is available from Red Bird Chapbooks and a book of short fiction titled My Father is an Angry Storm Cloud and Other Stories is forthcoming from Tailwinds Press in 2015. When not writing, she teaches English and directs the Honors Program at Wor-Wic Community College. She also likes to do stereotypical Eastern Shore things, like eat crabs smothered in Old Bay and go for long walks by the water with her Black Lab.