The Truth About Fiction

Posted on 1st July 2016 by Sally Campbell
Our Waterstones Loves title for July was Wolf Hollow, a haunting and wise coming-of-age tale written in a beautiful yet simple style. Set in 1943 in rural Pennsylvania, its young protagonist Annabelle must learn some hard truths when her cruel cousin Betty comes to stay, one of which is that sometimes lies are just far more effective than honesty. With its moral themes, plucky lead and timeless appeal, the book has echoes of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, its author Lauren Wolk walks us through her deep Pennsylvanian roots

Wolf Hollow is a fictional story of the terrifying challenges Annabelle McBride faces in her twelfth year, but it’s laced through with many truths I learned on the farm where my mother grew up.


Image: Lauren Wolk's mother, Marion McConnell, reading to her brothers
Calvin and Harry, on the steps of the farm house.


That land—granted to my ancestor, Captain John McConnell, for service in the Revolutionary War—is my tap root, fed by the stories my mother often told about her childhood, hundreds of photographs my Aunt Molly took, and the time I, myself, spent there working and falling in love with the land.

Image: Calvin McConnell.

It's always my aim, as a writer, to use authentic details to establish a very strong sense of place, so I relied heavily on those stories, pictures, and experiences to create a fictional setting that would ring true.

I know it sounds unlikely, but many of my most cherished memories are of things like bathing broccoli in brine to flush out cabbage worms. Fetching potatoes from a root cellar where giant white spiders lived. Picking raspberries in a patch known for its snakes. Or sleeping in a room so cold in winter that I could scratch my name into the window frost.

Image: The lane from the McConnell farm house up to the orchards.

And when I set out to create complex, flesh-and-blood characters, I relied just as much on what I learned from my grandparents, and my uncles, and the other real “characters” who peopled both that place and my mother’s stories of life on the farm.

Image: Calvin, Marion, and Harry McConnell.

Toby, one of the book’s main characters, represents the real “vagabonds” who passed through those hills, cut loose from their roots by the Great Depression or so damaged by World War I that they never recovered enough to live stable lives. One of those drifters stayed for a while and made a very strong impression on my mother when she was a girl. He was a frightening man who had been gassed in World War I and was terrified of Germans. In fact, he was eventually locked up in an asylum after threatening a Belgian family in the area.

But he was memorable for better reasons, too, including the handful of photographs he took with a little camera—one of his few possessions. One of those photographs—of the farmland in winter—depicts such a simple, peaceful scene, that I’ve always thought it represented what he kept searching for but was never able to find. From those truths, I created Toby, a very different character but at the same time one who pays homage to all the soldiers forever changed by war.

Image: The McConnell homestead. Circa 1940s.

I created Annabelle, the protagonist of Wolf Hollow, to honor certain ideas but also real people in my life, especially my grandmother, who worked endlessly to take care of everyone around her, and my mother, who long struggled to live up to that example but actually set a new and better one of her own.

Image: Lauren Wolk's grandmother, Anna Marie McConnell. 1917-2014.

Annabelle is also a reflection of the kind of person I’d like to be. She’s braver than I am. More honest, too. 

Like my grandmother and mother before her, she sets an excellent example for me to follow.

I’m working hard not to disappoint her.


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