You are alone in the woods, seen only by the unblinking yellow moon. Your hands are empty. You are nearly naked.
And the wolf is angry.
Since her grandmother became her caretaker when she was four years old, Bisou Martel has lived a quiet life in a little house in Seattle. She’s kept mostly to herself. She’s been good. But then comes the night of homecoming, when she finds herself running for her life over roots and between trees, a fury of claws and teeth behind her. A wolf attacks. Bisou fights back. A new moon rises. And with it, questions. About the blood in Bisou’s past and on her hands as she stumbles home. About broken boys and vicious wolves. About girls lost in the woods—frightened, but not alone.
Elana K. Arnold, National Book Award finalist and author of the Printz Honor book Damsel, returns with a dark, engrossing, blood-drenched tale of the familiar threats to female power—and one girl’s journey to regain it.
There’s a great many things hard to fathom immediately after you finish a book that set themselves straight only later, in solitude, in memory. Like removing a pair of smudged-up glasses that fuzzed everything you saw. Red Hood troubled me for days, simmered in the cauldron of my mind. Many things about this novel did not sit well with me, and hung like gun smoke in the air.
I couldn’t put myself into the picture of it. And here, I think, is the reason why.
But first, what is this book about?
Bisou’s earliest memories were such chaos in her recollection, but they had festered and burned cinders into her mind: her father’s presence and how they lived with the threat of it like a knife at their backs, an escape and the giddy lightness of safety that never came, her mother’s voice whispering: “n’oublie pas d’oublier”, desperate for the bleak velvet of forgetfulness and its nothingness, then her absence like the loss of a limb.
Years later, when she is attacked in the woods by a vicious wolf, something red and primal at the core of Bisou snarls at the assault, demanding blood, demanding the offense be returned with a hard lesson, and Bisou faces the wolf with a fury like a fever. The next day, the discovery of a dead boy in the same spot in the woods with wounds not unlike the ones Bisou inflicted upon the wolf brings with it the buzzing sense of realization: could it be that boys with holes in their minds that needed to be filled with other people’s pain, who wanted for nothing but still found things to take, turned into wolves, their skin flowing into a thousand different shapes of fur and fangs and flesh?
Bisou felt her rage still brimming and unspent. She was like a hound that finally caught the scent it sought: she would track these boys—these wolves—like flags to be chased for sport, scales of justice in one hand and claws in the other.
The truth is, I have been among wolves. I’ll bet many of you have been, as well.
Elana K.Arnauld’s novel takes on ever-relevant subjects (toxic masculinity, sexual assault, female empowerment), and reworks the Red Riding Hood fairytale in the service of poetic revenge. But the premise withers on the page, fails to thrive and bear fruit. And it isn’t long before the novel leaps a chasm into preposterous territory.
What I found was a book stuffed with relentless, far-fetched plotting, thought experiments masquerading as characters (with especially disturbing implications given some late, weak plotlines), and a frustratingly glib ending that simmered in the air, as bitter as ash.
Though the last scene was left to float in the air a bit, I realized instantly, and with some considerable astonishment, what the author was getting at: the novel’s consoling message, stirring in the slaughter-numbed blankness of the book’s final pages, is that some people are beyond all hope of redemption, and would only cause grief and suffering as long as they were allowed to live. That hate should be met with hate, and that morality is a ring one could just take off on a whim. But most incredulous of all: that a group of smart and accomplished young women could shut the tailgate on their moral compass, and unleash themselves for murder, killing boys as quickly and efficiently as removing the yolks from the whites—and face no repercussions. Yes. Men get away with killing women all the times, the law even provides generous room for it. The thought of these monsters going unpunished, of walking untroubled in the world—it would lit a hellfire in anyone’s heart. But is the answer to patriarchal violence just more violence?
Truthfully, the cause of my shock is not the unbridled violence of it. I’ve read books where the rules of morality were sieves with holes so large that all sorts of things could pass through, but a novel born this way should have a broader dynamic to it, whether it’s satirical, poetic or simply poignant. Yet, there is a hollowness at the heart of Red Hood, a brittleness like plate glass shivering. The novel fails to throw into question the motivations of its characters to do right, and their tendency to rationalize their own worst ideas without truly understanding the possibility of disaster, or even examine the fact that Bisou and her friends have become a part of that same conveyor belt of death they denounced. This does not bode well for a novel that starts with a clarion call for accountability, a battle cry for “girls like us” who cannot fight back and those actively working to dismantle the system. “It’s not that we need more wolf hunters,” Bisou says at one point, “it’s that we need men to stop becoming wolves.” I can’t say the way this book ends reflect that sentiment.
Another idea in Red Hood that comes with a horrific aftertaste is Bisou’s powers being tied to the moon and her menstrual cycle. The author doesn’t shy away from describing periods in blood-drenched details, and I really relished the fact that the novel takes a hammer to the taboo around menstruation.
That said, the more I sat with this idea, the more it slipped, taking on a strange and unfamiliar form. I found the representation of queer people—especially trans people—a missed opportunity. The novel’s biggest misstep, for me, is that not only it fails to acknowledge that not all women menstruate, that some men menstruate, and that non-binary people exist as well within that system, but in a novel about violence against women, the exclusion of trans women’s experience as a demographic that suffers particularly high rates of murder is egregious. According to an article by the New York Times, at least 18 transgender and gender non-conforming people have been killed in the US in 2019—and those are only the reported cases. The real number is, sadly, likely higher.
Ultimately, the view of feminism that we get from Red Hood is predominately white, straight and cis-gendered, and that further dampened the would-be poignancy of the novel’s overall voice.