If a ballad begins with the birth of its central figure – think Davey Crockett on a mountaintop in Tennessee – where does that leave this account of Danny Wolfe, born in Regina, three months premature? Wolfe’s mother, Susan, had already finished a bottle of whisky by the time she arrived at the hospital. His brother Richard was a year older. Neither was destined to become a king of the wild frontier, though they sure wreaked havoc on the city streets.
It’s possible you’ve never heard their names, though if you’re from the prairies, you’ve likely heard mention of the Wolfe brothers’ gang, the Indian Posse. Young, ambitious, and shaped by a survival instinct those of us in a position of privilege will never fully understand, Danny Wolfe played a key role in the Indian Posse until his death in 2010 at the age of 33.
Through the meticulous compilation of personal interviews, letters, legal records, and psychological reports, writer and journalist Joe Friesen builds a fascinating portrait of Wolfe, whose influence was felt both in the jails and on the streets. And while the life and death of an underdog criminal may be enough to entertain true-crime fans, The Ballad of Danny Wolfe also holds wider appeal, addressing timely themes of poverty, multi-generational trauma, and the legacy of residential schools. In a social climate that embraces the facile good vs. evil archetypes that mangle conversations about class and race, Friesen’s book allows for a vision of how the past shapes the future.
After a Netflix-worthy recounting of a prison break in 2008 – one of the largest in Canadian history – Friesen backtracks to Danny’s birth in June 1976. His mother is surprisingly candid about her lifestyle in those days: hard drinking, days away from home, and violent. Susan’s husband, Richard Sr., was often on the streets or in jail. His temper once landed Susan in the hospital with a broken jaw.
Susan and Richard Sr. both attended residential school. Now a recovered alcoholic, Susan recognizes how she used substances as a way to escape her memories of physical and sexual abuse. “I was so sick. I didn’t even know how to be a parent,” she says. “That residential school really did a number on all our people.” Danny and Richard were among the first generation of children to be raised by survivors.
Friesen points out that even in their youth, Danny and Richard were well aware of the effects of Canada’s colonial legacy. In letters to his brother, Danny often used colonialism to justify his violent actions, and portrayed the gang as firmly political in its stance: “I just been doing what they been doing to us for the past 100 years and more. … We have our own society, the red society. That’s all we need.”
For indigenous kids living in poverty, this message of defiance combined with Danny’s call to embrace traditional indigenous ways turned out to be a pretty effective tool for recruiting. As Friesen says: “For many native kids raised without much sense of their own identity, the ceremonies, the attitude, and the slogans, like ‘Red ’til Dead,’ were a source of pride.” Despite lacking the sophisticated cohesion of some crime organizations, the Indian Posse grew to be one of the biggest in Canada. The gang was a family, albeit a dysfunctional one.
While Friesen provides readers with a fleshed out and empathetic character in Danny, he doesn’t ignore the false virtue of Danny’s grander ideas for himself and the gang. For the most part, the traditional practices Danny espoused only seemed to happen in the jails, as part of their indigenous programs. The gang itself was more concerned with making money. Despite his condemnation of colonialism, Danny’s political protest amounted to little more than hanging a Canadian flag upside down in his bedroom.
Even harder to swallow is the disparity between the gentle and loving young man raved about by his former girlfriends and the hardened thug running a prostitution ring of girls as young as 10. Richard and Danny’s posturing on this topic – shame, remorse, and occasionally outright denial – doesn’t change the fact that it made them a lot of money.
But it’s not the biographer’s job to impose a moral structure on a subject’s story. Friesen’s objective, almost clinical writing makes his book particularly powerful, as does the striking honesty of his subjects. However, while Danny’s story fulfills the expectations of a true crime biography, complete with violence, greed, and betrayal, some readers may find it occasionally lacking in thrills. Aside from the prison break and a fairly meaty courtroom scene, Danny’s day-to-day existence held no mafioso glamour. But what this story lacks in television-friendly sensationalism it makes up for in engaging social theory. These situations are never straightforward, and for readers, critical thought happens in the grey area. The Ballad of Danny Wolfe offers plenty of that.