Wolf Rider Book Summary

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson we will examine the 1986 young adult novel 'Wolf Rider' by Avi. We will look at the story, its key scenes, and characters. Then, the lesson explores ways that the novel treats themes of death and trust through the old English idiom of 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf.'

One Missed Call

Don't be fooled by the subtitle. 'Wolf Rider: A Tale of Terror' doesn't indicate a horror story. It's actually a mix between a thriller and a mystery. While the novel centers on uncovering the identity of the mysterious and sinister voice on the other end of the phone, it is told in the style of a thriller that evokes feelings of suspense and anticipation. The novel keeps readers on the edge of their seat with quick dialogue in short, unnumbered chapters.

Before cell phones and caller ID, every missed call was a mystery. When young adult author Avi (b. 1937) moved into a new apartment with an unlisted phone number, the first call he received sparked his curiosity and became the source of inspiration. If nobody had the number, who could have been calling? From this experience grew the novel Wolf Rider (1986). Casting a 15-year-old boy as the hero in this tale, Avi intends Wolf Rider to be a book for young adult readers, ages 12 and up. The author of more than 50 books, Avi is best known for his 2003 novel Crispin: The Cross of Lead, winner of the Newbery Award.

On the phone with a murderer. Is it a prank or a call for help?
boy on phone

Crying Wolf

Wolf Rider tells the story of 15-year-old Andy Zadinski who is thrust into the role of a 911 operator when he revives a call from a psychotic murderer. He says his name is Zeke and that he has just killed a woman named Nina Kemper. Zeke confesses his obsession with Nina to his anonymous confidant. Then the phone goes dead.

Everybody tells him it was a prank. There's nothing in the newspapers about it and the police say there is no sign of a crime. But Andy just can't keep let go of the feeling that something is very wrong. Mrs. Baskin, Andy's guidance counselor, says he's crying wolf. The old English idiom 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf' is about a shepherd who tries to cover up his own negligence by claiming that a wolf devoured one of his sheep. After people discovered that he was lying, no one is willing to believe him when the wolf really does strike.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf
The Boy Who Cried Wolf

Like 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf,' Wolf Rider explores themes of death and trust. Andy's strained relationship with his father, Dr. Robert Zadinski, a professor of Mathematics at Madison State College (Wisconsin), underlies the novel's mystery plot. A year ago, Andy's mother was killed in a collision with a drunk driver. Father and son have just sold their house and moved across town into an apartment. The mysterious phone call and the death of an innocent girl hit Andy unusually hard because of these circumstances. 'To Andy, talk of death was never--ever--a joke.'

Andy discovers that Nina is a real person. She, like everyone else, won't believe his story. Following a trail of clues, Andy discovers that Zeke is the alter-ego of Dr. Phillip Lucas, a colleague of his father's in the Mathematics department. Andy tracks down Dr. Lucas, observes him in a class, and learns that Nina is one of his students. The professor is cunning, highly intelligent, and respected within the college community.

When Andy comes to his father with this new information, Dr. Zadinski still won't believe him. He's got to evidence. Seeing this as the final straw, Dr. Zadinski makes arrangements for Andy to go stay with his Aunt. Maybe some time away from Madison will help him clear his head.

The Tables Turn

Mrs. Baskin tries to remind Andy that his father is sending him away out of love. But Andy doesn't see it that way. One important scene shows Andy at the Hardy Amusement Park with his father and new girlfriend. Andy isn't happy about his father's return to the dating scene. An afternoon at the Park brings back a flood of memories of their last trip there for his 12th birthday. Riding the carousel, he clutches tightly to a wolf-shaped mount. As the ride spins around, he's lost in a blur of memories and tears.

Carousel ride with animal-shaped mounts

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