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Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All Book Poster Image
Haunting and unforgettable novel of love, loss, and hope.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Throughout the novel, very brief mentions are made of events happening during World War II -- the relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps, the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, European Jews being made to wear the Star of David, Black men joining the armed services only to be assigned the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs, and how America turned away Jews trying to escape from Germany.

Positive Messages

Be brave. Never give up hope. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Frankie has led a heartbreaking life. She's lost her mother and her father has all but abandoned her. Life in the orphanage is dark, often abusive, with barely edible food and a strictness against which she can't help but rebel. But she never loses her ability to love or to hope. And, as readers learn in the first pages of the book, she's managed against all odds to make a new life for herself and her sister.


Some of the nuns at the orphanage subject the girls and boys to physical abuse (from slaps to being whipped with straps) and verbal abuse. A young woman uses a poker to fight off a man trying to assault her. A murder is described but not in graphic detail.


A few kisses, and one sexual encounter is briefly and discreetly described.


Very few uses of "goddamn," "hell," and "crap."


Characters read The Hobbit and Anne of Green Gables and watch Fantasia, The Wizard of Oz, and Bambi.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Pearl regularly visits and drinks at a real bar with a ghost bartender.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Laura Ruby's Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All is set in the years between 1941 and 1946 and narrated by Pearl, the ghost of a young woman who died in 1918. Pearl roams the streets of Chicago, spying on people from her past and causing havoc when she feels it necessary. She's also keeping a close watch on 14-year-old Frankie, who's been left "temporarily" at an orphanage with her younger sister and older brother. But her stay becomes permanent when her widowed father suddenly remarries and moves to Colorado, taking only Frankie's brother with him. As the story moves forward, Frankie will find first love and suffer a terrible loss, while Pearl and another ghost, Marguerite, must confront the heartbreaking truths hidden in their pasts. Girls and boys at the orphanage are verbally abused, slapped, and whipped with straps by some of the nuns and a ghostly character's murder is described. There are a few kisses and one discreetly described sexual encounter. Haunting, powerful, and heartbreaking, the novel was a 2019 National Book Award Finalist for Young People's Literature.

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What's the story?

THIRTEEN DOORWAYS, WOLVES BEHIND THEM ALL opens in 1946 at the very end of the story. Nineteen-year-old Frankie Mazza has found work in a diner and she and her younger sister, Toni, are living on their own in rented room in Chicago. Now behind them are the traumatic years spent in an often abusive Catholic orphanage. After the death of their mother, their father had sent them and their older brother, Vito, to live "temporarily" at the orphanage. They clung to his promise that once he could revive his failing shoe making business, they would be able to come home. Watching over Frankie and narrating the story, is Pearl, the ghost of a young woman who died during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Pearl is a restless ghost, roaming the streets of Chicago, where she meets other ghosts, including a Marguerite, an African-American with a tragic past, and a red fox she names Wolf. Pearl watches as Frankie's father marries a woman with children of her own and takes only Vito when he moves to Colorado with his new family. She sees Frankie, despite the strict separation of boys and girls at the orphanage, begin a first romance with Sam, only to have him leave when he turns 18 and is drafted. Then Frankie's father returns and the two girls finally leave the orphanage only to find themselves living in a tiny apartment ruled over by a very wicked stepmother. As the storyline unfolds for Pearl and Marguerite, memories from their pasts begin flooding back and with those memories comes a desire for revenge. 

Is it any good?

Readers may find the beginning slow going, but those who keep reading will be rewarded with an almost impossible-to-put-down storyline filled with unexpected plot twists. While Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All is a work of fiction, Ruby reveals in the Author's Note that her mother-in-law, Frances, lived in a Chicago orphanage during the Great Depression and World War II and she relied heavily on the recollections of Frances and her siblings, Toni and Vito, to vividly recreate what daily life was like at a Catholic orphanage.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the characters in Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All who either went off to war or waited at home for someone they loved who was a soldier. Do you think teens today can relate to the experiences of Frankie, Sam, and Vito?

  • Marguerite believed there are always "wolves" behind the doors you walk through in life. Do you agree? Or do you think bravely opening a door can bring good things into your life?

  • Do you believe in ghosts or spirits that can watch over us? How are the ghosts in this novel different from those we've seen in movies?

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