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"The Wolf Wants In" by Laura McHugh

"The Wolf Wants In"

A novel by Laura McHugh

Published by Spiegel & Grau, 272 pages, $26

On sale Tuesday

The opioid crisis creeps into every corner of America, so it’s only fitting that it spills into the literary world in a chilling and chillingly realistic new book from a Missouri writer.

Even the title, “The Wolf Wants In,” suggests how deeply an opioid addiction can sink into a person, a family and a town — and author Laura McHugh spells out in depressing detail some of the ugly truths about addiction.

She twines together the stories of Sadie Keller and Henley Pettit.

Sadie is a divorced mother of one who has moved back to her rural Kansas home of Shade Tree, not far from Kansas City, She hopes to find out the truth about her beloved brother’s death.

Henley is an 18-year-old recent high school graduate who wants to escape the seedy side of her hometown of nearby Blackwater and her family’s generations of desperation.

For Sadie, the move back home came after she put her husband through law school, expecting she’d go next. But with a new (and unexpected) baby, he thinks it would be too much. The marriage unsurprisingly falls apart, and Sadie takes a jobas a social worker, seeing firsthand the damage done by drugs, especially opioids.

When her brother dies unexpectedly, his wife is uncooperative about telling his family much about it other than to hint that it’s drug-related. Sadie starts asking questions. Her mother is in deep mourning, her sister is helpful but busy with a husband and two young sons, and Sadie is suspicious about what really happened to Shane. Throw in a recently found skull of a young girl, and more questions arise about what Shane may have known about the child’s death.

What McHugh does so well is create a realistic slice of life for a sizable part of America struggling with family problems, depression and inertia that stops them from taking charge of their lives. The family home that Sadie grew up in where her mother still lives? Her mom “no longer saw the outdated linoleum in the kitchen, the hideous mirrored tiles glued to the dining room wall, the pea-green sink in the bathroom. ... She would stay, unless something happened to upheave her life in such a way that she couldn’t go on there. If Dad’s death hadn’t done it — or Shane’s — nothing would.”

This is not “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”; it’s the lifestyles of the sad and struggling. The book is fiction, but the circumstances are not.

Henley’s situation is even more dire: She’s never known who her father is, and her mother, Missy, disappears for days at a time on drug benders. When she is around, she takes Henley with her to clean the house of the town’s wealthy family, the Sullivans. It’s another family that has seen its share of suffering, so there’s only the wealthy father and his spoiled college-age son.

When Henley and the son, Jason, begin a relationship, she keeps it quiet, knowing her family’s deserved reputation as part of the seedy side of town won’t mesh with the well-regardedSullivans.

McHugh’s previous novels also are set in small towns of the Midwest (“The Weight of Blood” and “Arrowood”), and she captures more than the scene and the mood. She writes with authority on the unspoken rules and the social strata that are part of every town.

There’s no happy ending for everyone in “The Wolf Wants In,” but there is hope. And in this timely tale, that’s all you can expect.

Amanda St. Amand is the digital editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.