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Monday
Aug172009

1981

Sister Wolf

By Ann Arensberg

Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Current Publisher: Ballantine Books (Random House)

Lauren Cerand writes:

Either just before I left, or just as I returned from my cousin’s Delta wedding, I was asked to participate in this series and decided I’d write about Eudora Welty. I knew I wanted to write about a woman, and was in a Mississippi state of mind at the time. Soon after, I received a reply congratulating me on the popularity of my choice, as the sixth or seventh respondent who would be extolling her virtues. I changed my tune; to do what anyone else is doing is always an unthinkable state of affairs from my perspective. In order to enhance my chances of making a unique contribution, I scanned the list for a book that I’d never heard of before, and chose Ann Arensberg’s Sister Wolf, which won when I was two. It was hard to find a copyI’d had an easier time tracking down Helen Brown Norden’s 1937 essay collection, The Hussy’s Handbook, a few days earlierbut Powell’s had one in store, and Sister Wolf arrived as I set off for a weekend at the beach.

Sister Wolf is a feral love story, shot through with a distinctly odd sensibility that lends a humorous, human touch to its otherwise Gothic mien. Think Wes Anderson presents: Wuthering Heights! Or Jane Eyre, starring Ally Sheedy! Basically, this detached, animal-loving, rich aristo with no chance of happiness meets this guy, living in self-imposed exile, who turns her on to the ways of earthly pleasures until tragedy rends these two sweaty hearts apart, their brand of passion keenly unfit to thrive in our cruel world. It’s every great love story ever told made into a studio movie during the 1940s. Everyone’s got baggage: She’s got a pack of wolves she’s illicitly keeping (bad) and a lesbian best friend called Lola (good); he’s a hired hand over at the old school for the blind who took the job so he could be closer to his former flame’s grave (problematic). Although myriad fascinating details quicken the pace, the beauty of Sister Wolf shines brightest when it illuminates unadorned truth: “A freak of weather could make an animal erratic, or a tumor pressing in upon the brain; but human actions were always uncertain and perplexing, especially the actions of the people whom she wished to love.” Frankly, I’m genuinely amazed that well-worn classics continued to be adapted into films when such rich quarry awaits a bold director. To make the case for tracking down Sister Wolf even more compelling, consider that this National Book Award winner was Arensberg’s debut! I’ll hold on to this one (as I seldom do), to read again when the season turns to a darker, more introspective time. Besides, it’s gratifying to know that I’m not the only Sister Wolf fan on the scene... my copy’s charming provenance? “The library of Daniel J. Handler.”

Lauren Cerand writes about art, politics and style at LuxLotus.com.

 

ISBN: 9780345438188

Fiction (First Novel) Finalists that Year:

  • Jean M. Auel for The Clan of the Cave Bear
  • Philip Caputo for Horn of Africa
  • Johanna Kaplan for O My America
  • Lynne Sharon Schwartz for Rough Strife

Fiction Judges that Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:

  • A Confederacy of Dunces by the late John Kennedy Toole won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Elias Canetti won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

Ann Arensberg’s writing career began when she was thirty-nine. Her first published story, “Art History,” appeared in Antaeus and won an O. Henry Prize. The story caught the eye of Alice Quinn, then an editor at Knopf. Quinn told Arensberg that if she ever wrote a novel, she should send it to Knopf. Five years later Arensberg finished Sister Wolf.

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