Ojibwe author Tom Peacock says he started out as a history person. He wrote Native American history books for school students and adults. But he says he had other stories in his head he wanted to get out. So, he turned to fiction — which in time led to "The Wolf's Trail."
"In a way it's historical fiction, I suppose" he said. "In a way, it's not. It's cultural fiction. I'm not sure what it is. I am not sure there's a word for it."
So, let's say what it is: an immensely readable recasting of Ojibwe stories told by aging wolf Zhi-shay. He lives in the woods around Fond du Lac near Cloquet, Minn. Peacock says the Anishinaabe feel a kinship with wolves, and he wanted their perspective.
"Every one of the chapters comes from the Ojibwe story," he said. "And I had to imagine, you know, our wolf relatives looking at us, and watching us, sort of live."
The wolf Zhi-shay is his pack's story-keeper. It's his job to remember the creation stories and the histories so he can pass them on to the young wolves. That includes telling them about the people in the nearby village.
In the book, as they learn the youngsters tell Zhi-shay that relatives or not, they don't think much of humans and their trials and tribulations.
Several evenings later when we gathered to talk story, I heard about it.
"They're messed up, aren't they, Uncle?"
"Yeah, a lot of them don't even know what it means to be Ojibwe anymore. We're still wolves. We haven't forgotten who we are."
But through the succession of stories the old wolf reveals how life changed for the Ojibwe and wolves with the arrival of European settlers. Peacock relates how Zhi-shay argues the Ojibwe deserve the pup's empathy.
"In a way it's their interpretation of who we are as Ojibwe people and how we've changed because of colonization," he said.
As "The Wolf's Trail" develops Peacock draws in the Seven fires prophecy. It foretold the arrival of the outsiders and the threat of extinction they would bring. Most of the prophecy has come to pass. The final unfulfilled element raises the question about the Ojibwe’s ultimate survival.
Peacock says Native fiction writers face the challenge of, as he puts it, telling secrets: talking about things usually kept within the community.
"We share things that we wouldn't normally share with non-Native people. Like our worry about what we have become, about who we are. Wondering whether we'll survive this," he said.
In the novel, the stories shared among a small group of wolves gathered under the trees grow to encompass the Ojibwe cosmology.
"I don't separate our spirituality or what the non-Native people would sometimes refer to as myths and legends," he said. "I don't separate that from the reality of who we are."
Peacock usually splits his time between Duluth and northern Wisconsin. However, he grew up at Fond du Lac, and its landscapes permeate the book.
"Those are the places I walked as a child with all my brothers and sisters and cousins and aunties and uncles, and parents and grandparents," he said.
There are also the descriptions of Madeline Island which the Ojibwe hold sacred. Peacock and his wife have been isolating on the mainland across the water from the island during the pandemic.
The book’s Duluth-based publisher Holy Cow! Press had an extensive plan of appearances for Peacock tied to the publication of “The Wolf’s Trail,” but all had to be set aside because of COVID-19.
The Wolf's Trail comes out at a time of quarantines and racial tension in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Peacock likes to think his book might help.
"I have this saying in Ojibwe, in our language, ‘Imbagosendam noongoom, gawiin imbamaadin daaziin,’“ he said. “'Today I have hope, I do not despair.” And that is what I was thinking of for the ending of this story. And that's what we need to come away with."