A Wolf by the Ears
- By Wayne Karlin
- University of Massachusetts Press
- 350 pp.
- Reviewed by Chris Rutledge
- April 4, 2021
What compelled slaves to fight for America during the War of 1812?
Wayne Karlin made his name writing historical fiction, with a focus on the Vietnam War. His latest novel, A Wolf by the Ears, takes aim at an earlier struggle, one that highlights the contradictions between the American Dream and American reality.
Karlin gets his title from a famous quote by Thomas Jefferson: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” During the War of 1812, a contingent of horribly abused slaves savored the opportunity to challenge young America, which proclaimed freedom while hypocritically practicing forced servitude.
How would America respond? As Jefferson’s quote continues, “Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."
A Wolf by the Ears focuses on three characters: slaves Towerhill and Sarai, purchased years earlier as children, and Jacob Hallam, their owner. Jacob is conflicted in his approach to his human property. He learned compassion from his father (Towerhill and Sarai’s original owner), who strove to educate and elevate his charges. Jacob himself grew up friends with Towerhill and Sarai, despite the power imbalance between them.
As they grow to adulthood, this imbalance expands. Towerhill remains indentured but enjoys “preferred” status, and Sarai is taken as Jacob’s enslaved lover. This “enlightened” approach contrasts with that of Jacob’s brother, Thomas, who treats his own slaves with cruelty and mocks his brother’s “kindness.”
The story also focuses on the choices made by the many other slaves held by the Hallams and their Maryland neighbors. Unsurprisingly, when encouraged by British raiders, those slaves join the fight against the United States, seeking revenge in savage ways.
Towerhill’s conflict rages both internally and externally. He is driven not just by a sense of justice, but also disgust. Disgust at Jacob’s hypocrisy, and distaste at Sarai’s willingness to remain at her captor/lover’s side when presented with the chance to flee.
At the heart of this novel is a question: Who is fighting for whom? Obviously, most slaves are incentivized to fight for the British in exchange for their freedom. But what about those enslaved men who, instead, fight alongside their masters? What are they fighting for?
Karlin also focuses on another group, the multi-ethnic “Wesorts,” who work against their fellow oppressed by returning runaway slaves to their owners. They, at least, act with the goal of maintaining their own freedom. The pro-American slaves have only greater misery to look forward to.
The enslaved men who fight against America are presented with another dilemma: Should they trust the British? The Brits certainly don’t fully embrace them, even as they are impressed by the slaves’ fighting skill.
Many, though not all, of Karlin’s characters are finely drawn — Towerhill’s long-simmering rage boils to the surface when the British offer him a chance to destroy the slave-owning system. And Jacob is presented as one who knows he’s benefiting from grotesque injustice but who nevertheless continues it.
The most interesting character is Sarai. She is drawn to her master and remains with him even when given the opportunity to flee. Is she convinced that her special role as Jacob’s lover makes her situation less exploitative and abusive? The author loses an opportunity to delve into her psyche, which would have been a rich vein to explore.
A warning: This story takes place in a time when perverse racial attitudes prevailed. Karlin, a white writer, makes ample use of the N-word when depicting the speech of slaveowners. Clearly, it is historically accurate; nevertheless, one can’t help but wince each time the word appears.
And one can’t help but easily answer the final question at the heart of the book: Whom do you root for? The enslaved, of course. Karlin’s greatest success is in reminding readers of that fact and helping them feel deeply the horrors of America’s original sin.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]
Chris Rutledge is a husband, father, writer, nonprofit professional, and community member living in Silver Spring, MD.