Book 137: The Tenderness of Wolves
Stef Penney, 2006.Genre:
Historical Fiction Canada 19th century. Western. Murder Mystery. Other Details
: Paperback. 466 pages.
Set in 1867, the novel opens in Dove River, a small isolated community on the shore of Georgian Bay, Ontario, and the discovery of the body of French trapper Laurent Jammet by his neighbour Mrs. Ross, a Scottish pioneer. A request is sent to Fort Edgar, the closest Hudson Bay Company trading post, and a party of Company officials arrive to investigate the murder. Suspicion begins to grow within the community and Mrs Ross is concerned that her teenage son Francis, who had been friends with Jammet, will be suspected of being involved especially since he seems to be missing.
Still the Company men focus their investigation on William Parker, a half-native trapper who was also friends with Jammet. Mrs. Ross husband seems indifferent to the whereabouts of their adopted son as they have an uneasy relationship at best and the boy often spends periods of time alone in the wilderness. Thus, Mrs. Ross accompanied by Parker as her guide, sets off to seek him. They are soon followed by a party of the Hudson Bay men seeking to interview Francis and also to locate the missing Mrs. Ross.
There are a number of journeys in this novel as various characters criss-cross the winter landscape in search of various other characters. Penney uses the device of telling parts of the story from the first person perspective of Mrs. Ross and other sections as a universal narrator. As a main protagonist Mrs Ross is superb; resourceful and strong as one would expect from a woman living in such a frontier environment and fierce in her determination to find her son even though it means confronting her deep fear of open spaces.
I was a little disappointed to read that Stef Penney had not visited Canada. The reason for this was that like Mrs. Ross, she battles with agoraphobic and so conducted her research at the British Library using the accounts of Hudson Bay employees and other resources. A number of Canadian readers have pointed out that the distances covered by her characters are vast and her timings for the journeys are not realistic. This had crossed my mind as well though it didn't detract from my appreciation of the story. I thought she did a wonderful job of capturing the the beauty and haunting desolation of the winter setting as well as handling a large cast of characters and certainly making me care about their outcomes.
The title is quite enigmatic though there are wolves in the story and they are sensitively depicted. This début novel won the UK's Costa Award in 2006 for both First Novel and Book of the Year. It is easy to see why it impressed the judges and literary critics and has proved so popular with readers. While there is a murder mystery at its heart with plenty of suspects, there are also fairly subtle themes linked to the role of women in a frontier society, forms of prejudice whether linked to class, race, sexual orientation or mental health.
This was a book that certainly grew on me. It was a library reading group selection and generated a good deal of discussion, which is always welcome. For most of us its themes of love and duty, while fairly understated, came to the fore much more than the central mystery. I also felt a strong relationship to the setting as I had grown up in Canada and spent many summers in the Georgian Bay area. I also appreciated aspects of Canadian social history depicted, such as the Hudson Bay Company's grip over the settlers and the relationship between the white settlers, the Company and the native peoples.Leave Me Alone
- a post-award interview with Stef Penney in The Guardian
in which she discusses the background to the novel and her battle with acrophobia.