Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves

by Carolyn Chute

(Grove/Atlantic, $28, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Carolyn Chute, a quirky but powerful writer, lives off the grid in rural Maine and has produced five previous novels that explore the people and predicaments of backwoods life: The School on Heart’s Content Road, which was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; The Beans of Egypt, Maine; Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts; Snow Man; and Merry Men. Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves is a sequel to The School on Heart’s Content Road, and a third book in the series is planned. Chute has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Thornton Wilder Fellowship.

What is this book about?

It’s 1999 in Maine, and stories are flooding the rural area where a man named Gordon St. Onge, known locally as “The Prophet,” runs a cult-like counterculture commune and homeschooling group called The Home Place Settlement. Rumors swirl about caches of weapons, violent behavior, child abuse – and indeed, there is a growing group of pregnant teens living there – and Gordon soon becomes involved with a new recruit, a bright but disturbed girl, Brianna, who paintings reveal her political and personal issues. It all comes to a head when a local reporter, looking for a big story, works her way into The Settlement and finds Gordon compelling, to say the least. When her story is finally published, the results are profound and unexpected.

Why you’ll like it:

Carolyn Chute has a vivid and powerful voice and she uses it to illuminate her characters and the out-of-the-way world in which they live. This is not hipster Portland or blue-collar Bath; it’s the deep back country Maine where abject poverty is rampant and so is the desire for personal freedoms. Chute is an author who thrives on afflicting the comfortable and complacent; there is nothing remotely sissified about her voice or her ideas about society and politics, and while the plots of her books are interesting,  it’s the real-life dialogue and characters that jump off the page that will keep you hooked. If you are intrigued by the current debates about income inequality, this book will resonate with you.

What others are saying:

In The New York Times Book Review , author Bill Roorbach, who lives in Maine, says: “…Chute…continues to make great art out of the nexus of the two Maines, and more and more (certainly in Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves), she is making great art out of the truer multiplicity of Maine. And isn’t this the multiplicity of greater America? Blue and red, for sure, but rainbows too  …Chute’s method…is to offer up the kisses, the confusions, the tongue-tied eloquence of teenagers, the battles of brothers, the fraught caring of women, the paranoia of one disenfranchised group rubbing up against another, the pains of disassimilation, and from them build her story. Carolyn Chute is a James Joyce of the backcountry, a Proust of rural society, an original in every meaning of the word. She inhabits everyone in her creation, sees everything that goes on within it. And though we might at times rather look away, we readers see everything—and everyone—too.”

“Quirky, intensely original…an intellectual page-turner…Chute combines strident political commentary with humor, surrealism, and inventive language. Her novel, like its author is multilayered and complex, deeply critical of society but fiercely devoted to humans,” says O Magazine.

“A complex, multilayered story worth digging into, which explores, among other things, poverty, democracy in America, and the role of community in helping those living on the fringe of society take even the tiniest steps forward,” says  Booklist.

Kirkus Reviews says: “Second volume in a planned series about the St. Onge Settlement, a collective of disaffected have-nots in North Egypt, Maine. At first we see the settlement and its charismatic leader, Gordon St. Onge, mostly through the eyes of Record Sun feature writer Ivy Morelli, who receives multiple phone messages warning of child abuse, drugs, guns, religious brainwashing, and anything else the anonymous callers think might prompt her to visit the place and expose its nefariousness. In the scornful eyes of Gordon and other settlement members given voice in this polyphonic novel (which also includes the comments of extraterrestrial “grays” we could do without), Ivy is a media lackey of the ruling class, alternately dishing out human-interest pabulum and scary crime stories to keep the masses frightened and passive. In a country that prefers to ignore the existence of social classes, Chute’s contempt for such air-brushing is bracing, as is her refusal to neaten up her decidedly flawed male protagonist’s opinions and actions. . . . He despises corporations and well-meaning liberals equally. He also dislikes feminists and has an awful lot of “wives” with an awful lot of babies; his newest spouse, Brianna Vandermast, is only 15. Brianna is no victim, however; she goads Gordon to move beyond creating an alternate world at the settlement and directly challenge the political system that pretends to serve democracy. This provokes sinister undercover servants of the powers that be to make use of Gordon’s messy personal life to manipulate another rebellious proletarian into doing their dirty work. The plot, the prose and the political pronouncements are as over-the-top as they often are in Chute’s work—which by no means negates the value of her career-long mission to show the elite what people at the bottom of the heap think of the American dream. Bottom line: They’re not fooled.”

Library Journal says: “In this latest work from Chute. newspaper reporter Ivy Morelli investigates the Home Place Settlement in Maine, a collective that exists outside the social and economic norms of modern America under the charismatic but troubled leadership of Gordon St. Onge. What Ivy finds is more nuanced and complex than the tempting soundbites of “cult” or “militia”; despite some unsavory aspects of Settlement life, it’s hard to argue that St. Onge and his followers don’t have a point about the destructive nature of much of the media and the detrimental effects on ordinary citizens of corporate and political corruption. Unfortunately, the sympathetic story Ivy relates is the first in a chain of events that threatens to break down the settlement way of life. This big, sprawling, messy, tour de force employs multiple narrators (including space aliens) and metafictional techniques. Though she does evolve, Ivy’s character is so annoying and shallow that it’s something of a relief when she takes a backseat in the last half of the novel and other characters emerge. VERDICT At turns funny, moving, and disturbing, this book will challenge readers to check their assumptions about how people choose to live in today’s society.”

“. . . Fiery, impassioned, and unlike anything else you will ever probably read, you can take Chute’s book as a warning, a letter from the future — or from the present — from people who are tired of promises and lies and just might not be willing to take it anymore,” says the Boston Globe.

When is it available?

Chute’s new novel is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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