Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

“When We Were Wolves” asks whether men convicted of every crime from murder to embezzlement can create hope and meaning for their lives even in prison. Jon Billman does not give a simple or sentimental answer to the question. Instead, he builds on Christian parables and sports clichés to develop themes of sacrifice, cooperation, and compassion in this complex allegory for the human condition, a “prison” from which death is the only escape. However, the hope of “deliverance”—from evil, pain and suffering, and death—is offered through action and faith. Here action is the ritual combat codified and afforded by hockey. By playing hockey, the group of prisoners becomes first a gang, then a team, and finally apostles, a progression over three distinct sorts of brotherhood and community. The Wolves progress from being animals to becoming men by developing a willingness to sacrifice themselves individually for the good of the larger group. Faith is brought to the men by Pastor Liverance who promises “better time” (prison argot for ways of serving one’s sentence with a degree of safety and comfort and, perhaps, relief from boredom) to those men who will play for a penitentiary hockey team.

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If crime violates the social order by breaking the bonds of community and brotherhood, then acts that restore or create such bonds may be useful in restoring the convict, one convicted of a crime, to the community and harmony with it. The Wolves are promised that by skating for Jesus, they may be born again. Indeed, they do learn in Purgatory, the home of the (fictional) state prison, how to work together as a collective social unit, to love and sacrifice for one another, and to act and think as a team, as apostles. Pastor Liverance, their chaplain, is an ironic Christ figure, flawed by his ambition; nevertheless, he offers his own life and sacrifices his own freedom to lead the charge of retribution against the Czech giant, the Goliath of the Cheyenne Buffalos, who has killed Belecki, perhaps the only “innocent” on the Wolves team. Pastor Liverance thus joins his team to do “hard time” in prison. The ironies, of course, are many, not the least of which is the violent nature of ice hockey, especially in the Oil League, in the context of the violent and venal nature of the larger community in which it is played. Billman is a wry and severe critic of his culture, as is clear from the name of the Wyoming State Penitentiary Christian Wolves. Because wolves are, in the context of the story, extinct in the lower forty-eight states, their fate is foretold in their name; there is, ultimately, no escape from mortality.

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