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Study Guide: Two Wolves: Themes & Motifs

Plot Summary

Ben Silver is at home after school, shooting a stop animation movie in his bedroom, when police arrive at the front door. ‘Where are your parents?’ they ask. As far as Ben knows, his parents are at work at their wrecking business. They’re not. They turn up moments later, telling Ben and his little sister Olive to pack a bag because the family is going on a holiday. Their first ever.  But it doesn’t seem like a holiday. Why have they changed cars? What was in the grey sports bag that Uncle Chris gave Dad? And how can Mum and Dad think that staying in the falling-down cabin in the bush miles from anywhere is like a holiday?  It doesn’t take long for Ben to realise that his parents are in trouble. Ben’s always dreamt of becoming a detective – his dad even calls him ‘Cop’. Now Ben gathers evidence and tries to uncover what his parents have done, writing down the clues in the brown leather notebook that belonged to his grandfather.  The problem is if he figures it out, what should he do? Tell someone? Or keep the secret and live life on the run?

From Penguin books,  <https://penguin.com.au/books/two-wolves-9780857982032>

 

The following boxes contain content from Random House Australia's Two wolves teacher's guide

Nature, survival and fear

Ben’s story is one of survival – at first on the run from police with his parents, but later his story becomes one of actual life-or-death survival in the wilderness. Having grown up in the suburbs, being confronted with the wilderness and Nature is one of Ben’s greatest fears. Yet in forcing him to face his fears Nature also becomes his saviour, helping him to see beyond his emotions and panicked state to the truth, to accept his situation and to embrace quiet and stillness. In the survival chapters in particular (pp. 183–226) we see Ben confront his fears and his attitudes changing from worry to ‘flatlining’ (p. 218) to an acceptance that: ‘Things could not rattle him so easily. Maybe not even death.’ (p. 228).

Key quotes

• ‘He had never spent time in the bush, had never left the suburbs. He did not want to go to the creek. The wilderness was his enemy.’ (p. 64)

• ‘Nature was real and true and terrible.’ (p. 67)

• ‘He knew that he would have no chance out here alone. Ben’s survival skills included hunting for leftovers in the fridge, lowering bread into the toaster and switching on the heater when it was cold. None of these talents would be useful here.’ (p. 69) • ‘Ben felt the force of the wild all around them. In the cawing of crows high in a dead tree and the relentless chirping of insects and the silence of the big blue sky. He was not sure if the force was for or against them. But it was there.’ (p. 194)

• ‘He had nothing. Just him, wilderness, Olive, fear. Fear was his fire, keeping him alert and alive. Growing up in a house in the suburbs, right next to a highway, had not prepared him for this. Playing thousands of hours of video games, watching hundreds of movies, playing soccer, helping out in the wrecking yard, watching game shows with Nan – none of it was useful to him now. Someone had pressed “reset” on his life. He had no pantry, no fridge, no shops, no cars, no lights, no bed, no blankets, no roof.’ (p. 199)

• ‘Ben looked around and breathed it all in. He had missed this place . . . He cupped his hands, dipped them in the water, splashed his face. It felt crisp and good, waking something inside him . . . [H]e should have felt bad about the place, but he didn’t. He knew now that everything bad would pass, and everything good. The creek flowed on. He splashed his face again and sat back on a rock, closing his eyes. He sat there for a long time, becoming so still he felt as though he had disappeared or had turned into one of the boulders he was surrounded by. Rocks that had been here forever.’ (pp. 261–262)

Self-esteem and weight

Ben’s weight is an issue for him – he knows he is ‘slightly overweight’ and he has been teased about it at school. His nan thinks it’s caused by ‘the rotten dinners his parents fed him from the burger chain on the corner’ (p. 4) and his mum tries to help by offering advice but she sometimes makes Ben feel worse about himself. As part of his character arc and because of the circumstances he finds himself in – having to survive with no food in the bush – Ben gradually overcomes his weight issues. At the end of the book we learn that he has been lifting weights, and has grown taller in the year following his ordeal. His new level of fitness plays a role in helping him to stand up to his dad’s bullying. 

Below is a short film, Identity, written and directed by KJ Adames and produced by Stella Davis:

"Living in a world where everybody wears masks due to lack of self-identity, a brave girl encounters the truth that sets her free"

Truth and justice

Ben wants to be a detective when he grows up, and he’s particularly interested in police work and procedures. His stop-animation film is about a detective called Ben Silver – Ben is using his film to live out his dream. And when the family are pulled over by police, Ben is given a business card with the police motto. What Ben learns about his family – in particular, that his dad and grandfather had criminal tendencies – shakes Ben to his core. He must ask himself: if being a police officer is about upholding the law and being truthful, can you become a police officer if you have made bad decisions or told lies? When the police arrive at the cabin, Ben must make the ultimate decision: whether to run towards them or away. His decision will affect his family and even his and his sister’s lives, and he may come to regret it – but he must also learn to live with his decisions, and, in the end, make  amends and set things right.

Key quotes

• ‘Culpam Poena Premit Comes – the police motto. Something about honesty, truth, abiding by the law.’ (p. 171)

• ‘Ben had found the translation of this in a book – something like “Punishment follows closely on the heels of crime”. It had proven true but it was almost too simple and neat for Ben now, too black and white.’ (p. 270)​

NSW Police Force Insignia

Self-perception: Who is me?

Ben likes to think about the concept of self, contemplating who he is and what ‘me’ means. The question, of course, becomes even more important as he learns more about what his parents have done, and he wonders whether he will become like them. Key quotes • ‘I’m me, he thought. Not this again, said another voice inside him. But if I’m me then who is everybody else? Ben often had these ‘I’m me’ sessions. It was usually when he was walking home from school or before he went to sleep . . .

Key quotes

•'I am me. But, if I’m me, then who are Mum and Dad? Who are James and Gus? Are they ‘me’, too? They think they’re ‘me’. They call themselves ‘I’ just like I do. So how am I different? I’m in a different body but are we the same thing somehow? Ben’s ‘I’m me’ sessions always brought up more questions than answers. Each time he tried to capture ‘me’, it would disappear into the dark corners of his mind, like a dream he was desperately trying to remember. Where did his thoughts and ideas come from? Even the thought ‘I’m me’ – what was that? It felt like there was someone back there saying things that Ben couldn’t control.’ (pp. 35–36)

• ‘He had never really thought that much about where meat came from before, about the process of an animal becoming food. Did it become meat as soon as it died or only once it was ready to be cooked? Or was it always meat? Am I meat? he wondered. Ben squeezed his bicep. Maybe I am, he thought. I hope they don’t eat me.’ (p. 113)

• ‘Ben no longer knew if he was a detective or a thief. His dream was to be an officer of the law, but his reality was very, very different. I’m me, said a voice in his head. Not now, Ben thought. I’m me, said the voice again, but they are me too. My own blood.’ (pp. 172–173) 

Family: ‘flesh and blood’

Much of Ben’s dilemma revolves around the concept of family. What is family? Does family matter? If so, why? Should you lie or conceal the truth to help your family, even if they’ve done something wrong? How much of your character is in your genes?

Key quotes

• ‘For that moment, everybody was happy. The way things were meant to be, the way they were in movies. The way Ben always imagined other families being. Maybe better.’ (p. 89)

• ‘Ben worried sometimes that his parents would not be together forever. But he also worried that they would be together forever.’ (pp. 92)

• ‘They always ate dinner in front of the TV . . . [T]o Ben’s family, TV was like bad glue. They needed regular doses to keep all the cracks hidden.’ (pp. 126–127)

• ‘“Better the devil you know.” That’s what people said. If there were two choices and they were both bad, you should go with the one you knew. Your own family. Flesh and blood, said the voice in his mind, the voice he could not control.’ (p. 166)

• ‘Run, said another voice. But they were his family, the only family he had. I’m me, but they are me too.’ (p. 173)

• ‘His parents were criminals, so he must be more likely to become one. Like father, like son. Did he have a choice or was it written in his DNA?’ (p. 225)

• ‘Like grandfather, like father, like son. Was it really possible to escape what was written in his genes? He could still just take the money and disappear.’ (p. 261)

• ‘Dad and Pop, no matter where I go, are inside me, in my blood. Is it possible to outrun the blood you have inherited, to become somebody else?’ (p. 254)

Wolves – and hunters

With the title of the book being Two Wolves, wolves are of course a key motif. Not only is there the obvious parallel to be drawn between the ‘two wolves’ epigraph and Ben’s own dilemmas, but there are also more subtle uses of wolf, dog and animal symbolism.

Key quotes

• Ben thinks Dad looks ‘rat-like’ (p. 12)

• Olive calls Dad Maugrim, the evil wolf henchman from C.S. Lewis (p. 14)

• Ben thinks Dad ‘looked more like a dog than a rat today’ (p. 106)

• Ben’s dream: ‘The wolf had his father’s eyes’ (p. 121)

• Olive calls their parents ‘dirty dogs’ for leaving them alone at the cabin, and it becomes Ben’s chant while he saws (p. 133)

• ‘Dad released his grip and walked out of the cabin, shouting into the night like a crazed beast.’ (p. 155)

• ‘He had leg-length. He could take Ben down like a wolf chasing a rabbit. Eat him alive. Black and crispy on the outside, raw in the middle.’ (p. 159)

• ‘Now they were wolves behind the hen house.’ (p. 249)

• Dad says ‘I’ve been living like an animal.’ (p. 264)

• Dad is both a lame dog and a vicious dog in the climactic scene, right down to biting Ben’s arm and drawing blood (p. 268) .

The two wolves inside of us: an old Cherokee story

Moral and ethical dilemmas: what would you do with a bag of money?

One of the most important questions Ben must ask himself in the book is about how money could change his life. Can his family’s problems be solved with money – even if it isn’t theirs? What difference can millions of dollars make in their lives? Will they be better off with the money, even if it means moving to a different country or remaining on the run? The moral and ethical dilemmas surrounding these questions form the heart of Two Wolves.

Key quotes

• ‘If life was full of good things and presents and they were all happy, did it matter where the money had come from? Did it matter why his father had driven off from the police? Did it matter that his mum had lied to him about selling the business? Maybe he was overreacting. Maybe they really did sell the wreckers . . . And that’s how they got the presents. What if it could always be like this? A million dollars could buy a lot of happy.’ (p. 89–90)

• ‘If the bank put it into their account by accident, even though Mum and Dad transferred it out, wasn’t it theirs? Didn’t it belong to them now? Wasn’t that just bad luck for the bank? Finders keepers. Maybe Ben’s parents could keep it. Was Ben a millionaire? Technically, he was. Could life on the run with millions of dollars be good?’ (p. 158)

• ‘He had taken the money and run with it. What did that say about him?’ (p. 208)

Innocence vs. experience

Tristan says: ‘As Two Wolves unfolded I realised that, to me, the story was about the “not-knowingness” of childhood. As a kid, you want to know everything but you are often protected from the truth by your parents. In order to find anything out, you become a kind of detective inside your own family, trying to put the fragments of information together to discover the truth.’ It is clear to the reader at the beginning of the book that Ben is immature, both through the way he thinks and particularly via the way his dad treats him – Dad is ruthless about signs of what he sees as weakness in Ben:

• ‘“man up”, like Dad always said’ (p. 43)

• ‘“Big baby!” Dad called’ (p. 44)

• ‘You want me to put a nappy on you?’ (p. 49) • ‘Useless. Come back when you’re a man.’ (p. 155)

• ‘Don’t apologise all the time . . . It’s weak.’ (p. 10)

• ‘Dad had assured him that real men don’t cry’ (p. 206)

Ben’s journey in Two Wolves is one of coming of age, of growing up and reaching maturity – his struggles, mental and physical, help him to learn resilience and strength, and to trust in his own judgement. His progression is clearly from innocence to experience, from ‘not-knowing’ to knowing. The question is, what kind of person will he become as he learns more about the world? Part of Ben’s journey is also to learn that adults are fallible, and that parents don’t always make the best decisions for themselves or their children.

Key quotes

• ‘Adults never told kids anything. Nothing worth hearing anyway. Ben felt as though he spent his entire life trying to work out things that adults knew but wouldn’t tell him.’ (p. 71)

• ‘Ben made a promise to himself that he would work out where the money had come from and why they were lying to him. He was sick of being treated like a child. He was going undercover. He would find the truth.’ (p. 83)

• ‘Ben tried to sit there and be okay with the not-knowing. After all, he was just a kid and they were adults and this was best for him. They knew. They would take care of him. They were his parents.’ (pp. 146–147)

• ‘It’s a weird day when you realise that your parents aren’t who you think they are. Ben wondered if there would come a time when he realised that he, himself, was not who he thought he was, that he was someone totally different. Someone capable of doing what his parents had done.’ (p. 152)

• ‘He looked upstream, toward the not-knowing place, where he had been at the mercy of his parents. A place he and Olive could not go back to now.’ (p. 191) 

Rabbits – and prey

Contrasting with the metaphor of wolf as hunter and destroyer, there is the symbolism of the rabbit, its potential prey. The cooking of the rabbit Dad has shot could also be seen as symbolic of Dad’s failure to take control of the situation the family are in, and his botched attempts to run away with the money, as well as his inability to see when a plan is failing – which becomes his downfall. The family’s reactions to the raw inside, burnt outside ‘rabbit-fail’ (p. 116) help to convey their individual feelings about Dad to the reader, and how they cope with him – Ben ‘trying to sound tough and manly while still refusing to eat the meat’ (p. 116); Olive  ignoring Dad altogether; Mum trying to distract everyone with the other food on offer.

Key quotes

• Olive has a ‘dirty, grey stuffed rabbit’ toy called Bonzo (p. 9) – Bonzo symbolises Olive’s innocence as a young child of seven, as  well as her determination, since she won’t leave  Bonzo behind

• Ben sees a rabbit in the bush (p. 70) – wild and shy, it skitters off when Ben moves 

• On p. 159 Ben sees himself as a rabbit, being chased by his father, the wolf 

• On pp. 103 to 110 Dad is hunting rabbits with Pop’s old rifle: ‘Ben hoped that the rabbit was way underground, settling in for a  bunch of  carrots and a long nap.’ (p. 106) Dad is about to shoot the rabbit at the end of the chapter: ‘“Bang,” Dad whispered.’ (p.110)

• The scene of Dad skinning the rabbit is described in vivid detail on p. 111 and following pages: ‘The rings of the tree, stained with blood, seemed to radiate out from the rabbit. The one brown eye that Ben could see looked alive but the rest of the animal was floppy and lifeless.’ (p. 112)

• On pp. 215–216 Ben likens Olive to a rabbit: ‘She ate the crisp, juicy tips of fern fronds instead, nibbling at them like a pink-eyed rabbit’

• Ben also sees Olive as a helpless koala when she is ill: ‘Just two little koala claws clutching his shoulders.’ (p. 218)