August 15, 2017

Counting Wolves

Written by Michael F. Stewart
978-0-993757945
217 pp.
Ages 12+
August 2017

"For the last three years I've been hunted by the wolf–wait."  I hold a hand up.  "I  know it sounds crazy–but I've been holding it back with my count.  It works like a magic spell, and it keeps others safe too, everyone.  I've felt the wolf.  I've seen it." (pg. 140)
We all have wolves at our doors.  Some just howl louder or claw more violently.  They may be the wolves of past events come to haunt us, or bad thoughts that want to become actions, or the ones that portend disaster.  But how do you survive the wolves when they're always, always waiting to get you?

Fifteen-year-old Milly Malone is convinced that she has found the magic spell to banish the wolf to the Dark Wood and survive: she counts.  She counts to 100 each time she passes through doorways or eats a single bite or speaks.  Perpetuating the predator theme, Milly will only cross a door's threshold by hopping.  Needless to say, she's often late for class, eats very little in the time allotted, and people get frustrated waiting for her to express herself verbally.  Her boyfriend Billy is her rock, defending her to those who might ridicule her, but even he can't help her when she hears the smacking of jaws, sees the welts of claw marks on her back and collapses, "Lost in the blackest of fairy tales." (pg. 6)

After a visit to Emerg with her step-mother Adriana who believes Milly's issue is an eating disorder–Milly's mother passed away three years earlier and her father is away on business–Milly is admitted to the Pediatric Psychiatry ward where she meets an assortment of characters.  There's Peter, a large boy who is convinced he's a fairy (a leg cast is indicative of a recent flying attempt off the building); the manic Vanet who "is like some stoned fairy godmother who's as liable to kill you as help you"; pg. 81); Red, a girl who dresses in red and is plagued by nightmares; Eleanor a.k.a. Pig, the aggressive homeless girl who likes to burn stuff; Wesley whom she calls Rottengoth whose parents hate him; and Sleeping Beauty, a girl who is on IV constantly and rarely awakens. And then there's Wolfgang, the scary dude with the dead eyes in an acute care room.  Through meals, group therapy, recreational activities and interviews with Doctor Balder all the young people reveal their own wolves, sparring in words and actions and ultimately forming a community of support to keep the wolves away.

Counting Wolves is an intense read about young people dealing with mental illness and how those around them, medical professionals and family, deal with them.  The stories in which these young people embed themselves are tragic, not unlike the fairy tales that Milly reads or was told as a child.  Like many of the original Grimm fairy tales, whose stories are not always obvious at first read, they are frightening.  There may be lessons within but they are devastating to body and soul, with fear often the prevalent emotion. Michael F. Stewart, whose earlier Assured Destruction series (Assured Destruction, Script Kiddie, and Assured Destruction with Zombies) revealed clever plotting and great characterizations, is able to get into Milly's head and give her a voice that is legitimate though perplexing.  Granted, he's the one who has created that head with its confusing thoughts and beliefs but Michel F. Stewart melds her mental illness with grim fairy tales so flawlessly that it's a wonder all issues can't be viewed better in terms of fables. Even as she works through her anxiety, independently–including with the use of a 1960s workbook–and with her established and new support systems, she is challenging the wolf. There is a surprise revelation when Milly recognizes that her wolf is not whom she believes it to be but that's a secret the readers will need to discover for themselves.

Counting Wolves illuminates the treachery of mental illness, including the distorted thinking that can override all and twist stories even more.  Keeping the wolves at bay under these circumstances can be even more challenging.  Still Michael F. Stewart provides some indication, maybe even hope, that help and protection is available, even where least expected.

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