Promise of the Wolves

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

In Promise of the Wolves, the first book in Dorothy Hearst’s epic trilogy, The Wolf Chronicles, the rebellious spirit of Kaala Smallteeth animates the Swift River pack of the Wide Valley. Born of a forbidden, mixed-blood litter and treated as an outcast after her mother is exiled, Kaala struggles to earn her place in the pack.

But Kaala’s world is turned upside down when she rescues a human girl from drowning. When Kaala and her young packmates begin hunting and playing with humans—risking expulsion from their pack and banishment from their home in the Wide Valley—she learns that she is the last in a long line of wolves charged with keeping watch over humans in order to prevent them from losing touch with nature and thus destroying the world.

Soon, war between humans and wolves threatens, and Kaala must choose between safety for herself, her friends, and their human companions and the survival of her pack—and perhaps all of wolf- and humankind.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What do the three rules that guide the covenant of wolves in the Wide Valley—to stay away from humans as much as possible, to never kill a human unprovoked, and to mate only with wolves inside the valley—reveal about the tensions between wolves and humans in this region? How did this covenant originally arise, and what roles do the Greatwolves and the krianans play in transmitting this to the packs that inhabit the Wide Valley?
  2. “‘You must stay and become part of the pack. Do not come for me until then. You have promised.’” How does the forced departure of Kaala’s mother, Neesa, from the Swift River pack affect Kaala’s standing among her fellow wolves? Why do the Greatwolves support Neesa’s being exiled, but refuse Ruuqo when he wants to kill Kaala because of her mixed blood? To what extent does Kaala’s existence in the Swift River pack depend on the Greatwolves’ ongoing protection of her?
  3. How would you characterize Ruuqo’s relationship with Kaala? To what extent does Kaala strive to win Ruuqo’s admiration and respect? In what ways does Ruuqo thwart Kaala’s efforts to obtain romma? How are Ruuqo’s feelings for Kaala complicated by his own brother’s being exiled for interacting with humans?
  4. “My legs shook and my head whirled. My chest began to burn like the very fires the humans kept, and I felt as if an invisible vine had wrapped itself around my heart, and now pulled me over to the human homesite.” How does Kaala’s attraction to the humans in her midst betray her unique heritage? Why does she risk being exiled from the pack to help save TaLi?
  5. In Promise of the Wolves, author Dorothy Hearst gives the reader a deep look at wolf life from the actual source—the entire novel is narrated from the perspective of Kaala. How did the insights you gained from seeing the world through the eyes of a wolf impact your appreciation of this novel and the wolf as a species? If you could have asked Kaala any questions about her experiences, what would they be?
  6. “Trevegg walked over to him. ‘No wolf is a pack unto himself, Ruuqo,’ the oldwolf said softly.” How does the author explore the similarities between wolves and humans in Promise of the Wolves, and why does she choose to juxtapose them repeatedly? Why might the human–wolf relationship elicit anxiety or fear in some cultures or societies? How is this anxiety related to long-standing historical assumptions about wolves?
  7. Throughout Promise of the Wolves, other animals—including the raven Tlitoo and the elkryn Ranor and Yonor—are given voices that wolves can understand. How do some of the more fantastical elements of this novel—the fact that animals can communicate with humans and with one another—affect your regard for this work of fiction? To what extent did you find yourself appreciating or being distracted by some of the more fantastical elements?
  8. “I’d thought my feelings for TaLi were wrong and unnatural. Now this wise and ancient human was telling us that it was not so, and that so much of what we’d been told about the humans—and about our own history—was untrue. How could I believe her?” Why do the Greatwolves mislead Kaala and the other wolves in her pack, and why does TaLi’s grandmother, a krianan, choose to expose their deception?
  9. Kaala is helped along her journey by many: her mother, Neesa; her aunt, Rissa; Zorindru and the other Greatwolves; her packmates Ázzuen and Marra; Trevegg; Tlitoo; Lydda, the spiritwolf; and TaLi and her grandmother. Of all of these aides, who do you think is most responsible for her survival and why? How does Kaala’s development over the course of the novel, from outcast and misfit to mature she-wolf, reflect the typical arc of a fictional protagonist? In what respects is Kaala like other heroines in novels you have read?
  10. “‘I started a journey that you must complete, daughterwolf.’” What role does Lydda, the spiritwolf, play in Kaala’s awakening to her heritage as the wolf that can unite wolves and humans? How do her interactions with Kaala throughout Promise of the Wolves reveal her allegiances? Why do you think the author chose to begin and end the novel with glimpses of Lydda, and how did her decision to do so affect your appreciation of this novel as part of a continuum, or larger story, about the wolves in the Wide Valley?

A CONVERSATION WITH DOROTHY HEARST

Q. Your debut novel is called Promise of the Wolves. How and why did you first become interested in wolves?

A. I came to wolves through a love of dogs. I can’t see a dog without stopping to pet it, and I can’t believe we’re so lucky as to have them in our lives. And I’ve long been fascinated by the incredible relationship between dogs and people—the way that we consider dogs part of our families and the way they consider us part of their packs. People run into burning buildings to save their dogs, and dogs seem as devoted to us as we are to them. It’s such an intense relationship and seems to be instinctive.

And yet wolves, the animals from which dogs evolved, inspire such mixed emotions. Some people revere them as our lost link to nature. Others see them as the incarnation of evil. Wolves were completely eradicated in the continental US by the 1930s because people hated them so much, and then were reintroduced in the 1990’s because people loved them so much. This tension between wolf lovers and wolf haters continues today. People are incredibly passionate about wolves.

This contrast is what led me to the wolves, and to Kaala’s story.

Q. Incorporated into a compelling novel is a lot of research about wolf behavior and biology. How did you research the book?

A. I started off by reading a lot of books and articles, and watching a lot of documentaries about the biology, behavior, and evolution of wolves and dogs. I also got in touch with the International Wolf Center, which has great wolf info. Then I observed wolves, up close in sanctuaries and from afar in the wild. That led me to a number of very generous researchers who were incredibly willing to share with me their knowledge about wolves and about dogs. Next, I got my hands on a wolf ethogram, which is a detailed record of wolf behavior based on observation of wolves. I was also fortunate that not too long before I started writing Promise of the Wolves, a lot of new research had been done on the evolution of the dog, and I was able to find a lot of good resources online. And, of course, playing with dogs is a vital part of my research.

Q. Did you spend time with wolves?

A. I did! Though I didn’t get to actually meet wolves face to face until the book was completed. My first wolf encounter was at the Cleveland Zoo. I was at a conference for work, and the novel was still in the idea stage. I found out that The Cleveland Zoo has a wolf habitat. So I snuck away from the conference and watched the wolves for ages, and peppered the zoo’s wolf expert with questions. Then, at his recommendation, I went to Yellowstone on a wolf watching trip where I got to observe wolves in the wild. I went to a couple of wolf sanctuaries, and then found my way to Never Cry Wolf Rescue, which finds homes for wolf and wolf hybrids that people have tried and failed to keep as pets, and also takes ambassador wolves to schools and other places to help educate the public about wolves. These guys agreed to pose with me for some photos, so I actually got to pet wolves, and feed them treats. I also got to hang out with a three month old wolf pup, definitely one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Q. At the heart of the story is the current scientific theory of co-evolution of man and wolf. What does this idea entail?

A. Coevolution, in general, refers to the process by which two (or more) species mutually affect each other’s evolution. Wolf-human/dog-human co-evolution is the controversial and contested theory that wolves, and later dogs, played an important role in human evolution—and visa versa. Some proponents of the theory believe that this is as simple as giving us more time to settle down and begin farming by helping us hunt. A few believe it goes much further—that wolves helped us become the dominant species on the planet by teaching us (by example) to hunt cooperatively, have centralized meeting places, and form complex societies. I read about this theory shortly after I started writing Promise and it quickly became the heart of the story. I made use of artistic license to take the idea further than any current research supports to place the wolves at key points in human evolution.

Q. Promise of the Wolves is narrated in the first person by a young she-wolf, Kaala. Was it difficult to write in the “voice” of an animal rather than a human?

A. It was strangely easy. Kaala’s voice was very strong right from the start and, once I’d researched wolf behavior and senses, it was very easy to think like a wolf. When I write, I’m really inside the fur of a wolf. I let go of how I would see something or respond to something and try to experience every event in the book as a wolf would experience it. I used to be an actor, and I think that was really helpful as I tried to get inside another creature’s mind. The only problem with this is that I can’t always get out of the wolf’s mind. I eat a lot more meat than I used to, and I have an unfortunate tendency to growl at inappropriate moments.

Q. In the book, you recount the legend of Indru, the first wolf to teach humans the wolf way of the hunt. Did you create this legend or does it have another source?

A. The story of Indru came from my somewhat whimsical take on coevolution. I’d read that Homo erectus (the hominid that eventually evolved into us) existed for many hundreds of thousands of years with the same tools and the same way of life. Then, for no apparent reason, they developed new tools and mastered fire. The timing of these unexplained advances correlates, more or less, with when the first wolves appeared. So I asked, what if the changes happened because these humans-to-be met some wolves who taught them a thing or two? I imagined a wolf and a human meeting at the edge of a great desert, and that’s how the legend of Indru was born. The legend of Lydda and the three-year winter is a play on the Norse myth of Fimbulwinter, in which a wolf will bring about the end of the world by swallowing the sun.

Q. What is the symbiotic relationship between wolves and ravens that you weave into the book?

A. The raven is sometimes known as “the wolf-bird,” because so often where there are wolves, there are ravens. Ravens are one of many creatures that scavenge at wolf kills, but there’s more to it than that. Because ravens can fly, they are better at finding carcasses than wolves are. But they can’t get to the food once they get there, because they can’t open up the carcass. So they’ll make a lot of noise, and then wolves will come and use their sharp teeth and strong jaws to make the food accessible not just to themselves, but also to the ravens. Ravens have also been observed circling a sick elk or moose and calling out, possibly alerting wolves to an easy kill, and they also respond to the howls of wolves preparing to hunt (and, for that matter, to human hunters shooting guns). And wolves and ravens play. A raven will sneak up behind a wolf and yank its tail and the wolf will play back. Both wolves and ravens have the ability to form social attachments and they seem to have evolved over many years to form these attachments with each other, to both species’ benefit.

Q. Even before it has appeared, the publishing rights to your Wolf Chronicles have been sold to a number of publishers around the world. Why do you think a story about wolves is proving to have such universal appeal?

A. I think it’s because wolves and dogs themselves have such universal appeal. People all over the world love dogs intensely, and people all over the world have a fascination with wolves—there are wolf legends in many of the world’s cultures. Wolves are representative of a world most of us have lost touch with—ambassadors from a time when we were part of the natural world, and I think that world of nature calls to us in our apartments and our cities. And our relationship with dogs is about the most universal themes of all—love, trust, and friendship.

Q. There seems to be a subtle environmental message about overpopulation in the book. Are you attempting to make a timely statement?

A. The wolves are definitely out to save the world. We humans are not behaving in a way that is particularly healthy for ourselves as a species. If we don’t change our behavior, and the way we think about ourselves in relation to our world, we’re not going to have a very nice place to call home. Without giving too much away, it’s going to be up to the wolves to help us do this—if we’ll let them.

Q. Who is the ideal reader of Promise of the Wolves?

A. When I was writing Promise of the Wolves, I really wanted it to appeal to both adults and young readers. It was important to me to have the wolves speak to both, and my favorite books are those that reach readers of all ages. Other than that, I think it’s for anyone who wants to spend a little time in another world, or who wants to see their own world in a new way. Or for anyone who’s ever wondered what’s going on between the ears of the wolf in their living room.

Q. Were you inspired by any books or writers that came before you? In what literary tradition would you place Promise of the Wolves?

A. I seem to change my answer anytime anyone asks me this, because there are so many writers who inspired me, and I can never make up my mind which to talk about. My earliest influences were the greats of science fiction. From a pretty early age, I was climbing up the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the family library to get to the science fiction books, which were on the top shelf.

I was hugely influenced by Richard Adams’ Watership Down. His rabbits never saw themselves as cute, furry creatures—they had their own lives and concerns and dreams, and I was in awe of how Adams told a complex, multi-layered story from their point of view. Also by Diana Wynne Jones’ Dogsbody, which is about what happens when Sirius, the Dog Star, is trapped on earth in the body of a real dog. Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood have always been two of my heroes for writing strong, intelligent female protagonists and narrators. I would also love to follow in the tradition of authors like Jean Auel and Ann McCaffrey, who have created such realistic and engaging worlds, and of authors like Mary Doria Russell, who uses research and ideas as the basis for wonderful stories. And if I could be Kazuo Ishiguro when I grow up, that would be nice, too.

Q. Promise of the Wolves is the first in a trilogy. Will Kaala be at the center of the next book as well?

A. Absolutely. I’d get bitten, otherwise.

ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB

  1. After reading Promise of the Wolves, have you wondered what it would be like to live the life of a wild wolf? Visit the website of the International Wolf Center to play an interactive game in which you can explore the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park, hunt elk, and encounter stranger wolves. Much like the experiences of Kaala and her pack, your success will depend on your ability to find a mate, raise pups, and ensure your pack’s survival. In the course of your visit you can also discuss the game with other online players and chat with wolf biologists.
  2. Ooowwwwwwww! Have you ever heard a wolf howl in the wild? Maybe you have an idea of what it would sound like, but can you differentiate between a pup’s howl, an adult wolf’s howl, a lonesome howl, and a confrontational howl? What about a chorus of howls? To learn more about the different kinds of howls wolves make and what distinguishes them, visit this PBS site. Feel free to howl along in the privacy of your own home!
  3. In Promise of the Wolves, Dorothy Hearst narrates her novel from the first-person perspective of Kaala, a young female wolf who is something of an outcast in her pack. If you were writing the story of your life and you had to do so from the perspective of an animal, what kind of animal would you choose? Would the animal be male or female, young or old, wild or domesticated? Imagine what kind of animal you would choose, and feel free to share your choice with the other members of your book group. What does each person’s choice of animal reveal about him or her? To what extent are you surprised by the animals your fellow readers chose for themselves?