CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 1 . . . .September 2, 2005
In his novel, Ingrid and the Wolf, André Alexis presents a main character who is smart and engaging and real. Ingrid's story echoes setting and character from the great Victorian novels and has a touch of the magic of the great, timeless fairy tales. The language is accessible to late primary students.
Ingrid and the Wolf is the story of Ingrid Balasz, an 11-year-old Toronto girl. As Ingrid is finishing grade six, her father receives a letter from his mother in Hungary, inviting Ingrid to visit her for the summer and to meet for the first time. Ingrid is sent alone to meet her grandmother, and, while there, Ingrid discovers that she is, in fact, a countess and that her family has a very strange history, one which includes saving a village, talking to wolves, and magic. Ingrid discovers why her father left Hungary, never to return, and is offered her father's inheritance: the entire family estate.
This is not a realistic story. It is set initially in the very real locale of present-day Toronto where the very real character of Ingrid has trouble making friends at school and wants above all to please her parents. The story shifts to a small town in Hungary where the family estate is located. Here, nothing is realistic. A man in a bear suit is presented as a real bear, even though Ingrid can see that he is wearing a mask. A book of the Balasz family history that Ingrid finds in the estate library includes the fact that she has just now found the book in the library. The book dissolves into salt as she reads those words.
At the heart of this story is Ingrid's relationship with a wolf that she meets in the dungeon of the house in Hungary. The relationship touches on the themes of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and love.
The language that Alexis uses in this novel is rich but not overly difficult. A good eight-year-old reader should not have trouble with the vocabulary. Alexis does not use a lot of description but keeps the story moving. The plot moves quickly from Toronto to Hungary to the mysterious dungeon of the Balasz estate. The author knows how to keep his reader curious to learn more about this strange and, at times, slightly frightening adventure in which Ingrid finds herself.
I was reminded of Burnett's The Secret Garden as I read this novel, with that story's dark and foreboding house and its bold young heroine bringing a family together. In a different way, but in a similar dark, foreboding house, Ingrid Balasz discovers family secrets. By exposing them, she is able to bring her estranged family together and, at the same time, solve some of her own problems. The story ends back in Toronto where she must again deal with the issue of friends at school, this time using the knowledge of self she has gained in the dungeon in Hungary and from her new friend, the wolf.
Levels of meaning in this story are not often encountered in a text with such a low reading level. Symbols are contained throughout in the guise of animals and fixtures in the house. The man in the bear suit, which Ingrid sees as phony, but others agree is a bear, symbolizes Ingrid's ability to see truth through lies. The symbolism of a table setting symbolizes order without purpose, and the major symbol of the wolf symbolizes danger, trust, betrayal, friendship and even love. But, as in any novel using symbols, these are all open to interpretation by the reader.
Alexis' first novel, Childhood, won the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1999. It was short-listed for the Giller Prize in 1998.
Robert Groberman is a grade one teacher at David Brankin Elementary School, Surrey, BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.