The Wolf Tone, by Christy Stillwell, winner of the 2017 Elixir Press Fiction Award, defies characterization. This debut novel is set in Deaton, Montana, a fictional yet familiar college town. Written in a close third-person point of view that shifts between the major characters, it’s simultaneously a page-turning suspense story, an insightful portrayal of how men and women respond to the demands and realities of parenthood, and an example of the use of literary motifs and threaded metaphors, so deftly woven into the text that they work their magic subconsciously.
Given the author’s skilled utilization of language, syntax, imagery, and subtext to enhance meaning, it was no surprise to find that Stillwell is an accomplished poet. What did surprise me is how swiftly the story and its cast of characters had me fully invested, flipping the pages to discover what happens next. The plot is multifarious, swirling together a tight-knit family of disciplined, driven musicians, a stridently independent single mother, a dangerous criminal, newly discovered family ties, marijuana grow houses, and more.
The author’s nuanced characterization of the two female protagonists establishes the beating heart at the core of The Wolf Tone. Women of different generations, they appear at first glance to have so little in common that they can scarcely converse, let alone understand or empathize with one another. Margot Fickett, a classical cellist, married and mother to a grown son (Benji), presents a formal, controlled, and imposing presence. Eva Baker, a few years out of high school and trying to appear older with dramatic makeup, revealing clothing and a severe, bleached-out hairstyle, has kept the identity of the father of her toddler son, Birdie, to herself.
When Eva contacts Margot with the news that her son is Birdie’s father, Margot can’t reconcile this unwelcome revelation with her perception of perfect, prodigal Benji. It doesn’t help that Eva’s belated contact is prompted not by the desire that her son have a father, but because she needs cash to invest in her boyfriend’s medical marijuana business.
Margot Fickett’s instinct is to protect her son and reject Eva’s claims as the work of a conniving blackmailer. Yet, as she spends more time with Eva and the child and a DNA test confirms Birdie is her grandson, Margot’s feelings for the two evolve. She learns that, while different in appearance and lifestyle, Eva, like Margot years earlier, gave up the future she’d planned and envisioned for herself, to have a child and be its primary caregiver.
Of her own past, Margot Fickett reflects, “Many called it career suicide, but as it was happening—quitting jobs, moving across the country, falling in love with Montana—it was all exciting. They believed they could defy the odds, live a life that satisfied them both and raise a baby.” Which, we learn, meant Margot down-sizing her own musical ambitions, while her husband continued touring and being away from home for long stretches of time.
Eva’s life was similarly upended by motherhood. She was a college-bound eighteen-year-old when, in an impulsive moment during a senior class party, she and Benji lose their virginity together. To the horror of her parents and her freshman roommate-to-be (who has already chosen the curtains for their dorm room), Eva is firm in her resolution to have and keep the baby.
When Eva Baker observes Benji (her son’s father) for the first time after Birdie’s birth, he’s home from university, giving a concert in a local park, living the life he and his parents planned for him. She observes, “Her big stand against the status quo was that she had kept her baby. How noble. She was still dead in the water, while Benji got to pursue his dreams. Talk about status quo!”
Neither woman resents or regrets the decision to have a child or to place raising a child above other ambitions. Yet it’s clear they don’t enjoy the same freedom, or even inclination, as the men in their lives do, to relegate parenting to a back burner. In The Wolf Tone, husbands and fathers are absent for much of the narrative; they are on the road or pursuing personal and professional priorities. Both Margot and Eva, while their circumstances varied greatly, were alone in caring for their infant sons. Even so, they found time and space to work and pursue their creative aspirations (music for Margot, design and eclectic home decoration for Eva). It’s a matter of degree, balance, and relative priorities.
Margot Fickett expresses the vulnerability of new motherhood: “When Benji was born, Margot felt an almost crippling marvel. Hairless, appallingly fragile, she was overwhelmed with love and disgust. She wept as she nursed him, feeling both jailed and exultant.” Similarly, Eva Baker recalls, “She watched the baby working himself into a froth. It was terrible to find herself outside time and space. To see him on his own, so miserable down there, was also terrible. So helpless. One stomp and she could crush him like an insect.”
Eva and Margot have, each in their own way, confronted the fear, loneliness and isolation that often accompanies becoming solely responsible for something so fragile and precious as a baby. They both bucked up and rose to the challenge.
When Mr. Fickett and Benji learn they are grandfather and father, their reactions reflect their self-centeredness and privilege. Disappointed in her men, Margot reflects, “Their melodrama enraged her. Of course they would not jump for joy. Did she expect them to be happy about Birdie? But the infuriating gasp of tragedy, as if Birdie happened to them. Perhaps their maleness was the problem. As a man, paternity could sneak up on you. It was the ultimate gender chasm.”
Stillwell’s portrayal of these men is by no means negative or one-dimensional. Within the context of their lives as talented, driven musicians, Mr. Fickett is a good husband and Benji a son to be proud of. Of her son’s reaction to being a father, Margot Fickett reflects, “Her beloved son, her boy, was a brat! She had allowed this, accommodating his talent, pumping him full of himself. Fussing over him.” And of her husband, “I spoiled them both. Andy was also full of his own importance.” Margot realizes she has facilitated a lifestyle of traditional, gendered parenting roles and lowered expectations for her husband, and by extension her son.
The Fickett family is one where issues are sorted out through civil conversation, courtesy, and deference for one another’s feelings. Once the shock has subsided, both men respond with open generosity and concern for Eva and Birdie. There are no unseemly disputes over the minutiae of financial obligations, responsibility, or guilt. The family paradigm simply shifts, expanding to include the newcomers in its civilized orbit.
The profound differences in how parenthood can (and often does) transform the lives of men and women by virtue of biology is a central theme in The Wolf Tone. We experience it directly in the parallels and similarities between the major changes motherhood brings to Margot and Eva’s lives and the contrasting blissful, even ignorant, freedom enjoyed by the novel’s fathers.
The beauty of the book’s language works its magic subtly, adding sensory layers to the reading experience. While the human dramas unfold, the recurring motif of birds nesting on their eggs, protecting them from predators and the extreme vagaries of Montana’s climate, provides a lyrical, musical, accompaniment that subtly underscores the precariousness and demands of new life. The Wolf Tone opens with Margot spying on an owl through binoculars. “Its stillness was impressive. An immunity to loneliness. Hours, days, sitting on those eggs.” As the Ficketts come to terms with the unexpected additions to their family—Eva and the aptly named Birdie—the owlets hatch, christen their wings, and the cycle of seasons, of birth and the struggle to survive and thrive continues.
The Wolf Tone is a deft portrayal of the complexities of motherhood, especially for women with creative aspirations. As a mother and writer myself, this engaging novel resonated like the bass tones of a master cello concerto.