Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby
I loved Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap so much that I was almost afraid to read Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All (2019). How could it possibly live up to my expectations of it? After having read it, I can report that I do still think I liked Bone Gap better, but that Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All is also a good read. I’m not alone in thinking that, either; it was a finalist for the National Book Award and was chosen for the 2019 Locus Recommended Reading list.
Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All is set in Chicago in the years leading up to, and then during, World War II. Its first-person narrator is a ghost, Pearl, who died in the flu epidemic of 1918 but is still bound to earth. One of her haunts is the Guardian Angels Orphanage, where Pearl takes an interest in one girl in particular, Francesca “Frankie” Mazza, and narrates Frankie’s story alongside her own.
Frankie lives in an orphanage, but she’s not actually an orphan. Her father placed her and her siblings there after their mother’s death. Now he is moving to Colorado with his new wife, taking Frankie’s brother and the new wife’s kids, but not Frankie and her sister. Frankie wishes for, but also fears, some change in her circumstances; she has “a fear that the future would never come and a fear that it would, a strange sense that she wouldn’t be strong enough to meet it.”
The novel gets off to a bit of a slow start, with both Pearl and Frankie’s existences bound by routine. At one point, Pearl defines Frankie’s life as “her own little loop,” and though she’s referring to a later situation, it applies to Frankie’s time in the orphanage and to Pearl’s travels as well. If you, like me, are a fan of the TV show Westworld, this phrase will probably remind you of the “hosts,” and that’s apropos in some ways. Neither Pearl nor Frankie turn out to be an android, but their lives are similarly circumscribed.
But change is coming, no matter how Frankie feels about it; the specters of adulthood and the war are on the horizon. For Pearl, a new friendship with another young woman ghost leads to her learning more about her paranormal abilities. For both girls, there are family secrets to be learned. Ruby builds both plotlines to a deeply emotional boiling point, and brings them together in a satisfying way at the end. And if the ending leaves you wondering how it all turned out, page back to the very beginning, which you might have forgotten by now — the answer was there all along.
While the two novels have a different feel and are set in different countries, Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All explores some of the same issues as Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s All the Bad Apples. Both books are, in large part, about how girls were (and sometimes still are) punished for wanting anything, be that love, sex, food, or independence, and how both families and institutions sometimes failed them. I recommend both.