Books

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

Susan Balee
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

There's history, adventure, wit, and suspense. It's no surprise that the book won Britain's Costa Book of the Year in 2006.


The Tenderness of Wolves

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781416540748
Author: Stef Penney
Price: $25.00
Length: 384
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-07
Amazon

Cold and refreshing, this murder-mystery-cum-historical novel will transport you from Indian summer in Philadelphia to a snowy winter in the Canadian wilderness.

Time: Late fall, 1867. Place: Dove River, a tiny settlement on the northern shore of Georgian Bay. Precipitating event: Laurent Jammet, a French trapper and voyageur for the Hudson Bay Company, has been brutally murdered -- scalped, in fact -- and his killer is unknown. Collateral event: Francis Ross, a handsome but troubled 17-year-old neighbor of Jammet's, has also disappeared.

Whodunit? No one knows -- yet -- but Mrs. Ross, Francis' adoptive mother, wants to find her son and prove him innocent. Andrew Knox, the town magistrate, is baffled. The murder summons memories of the last disaster the community suffered: the disappearance 15 years previously of two girls, presumably eaten by wolves, as no trace of them was ever recovered.

Other characters include William Parker, a half-Indian trapper who is taken into custody as a suspect -- he was seen in Jammet's cabin after the event; Angus Ross, Francis' taciturn father, who doesn't seem too sorry the boy is gone; Donald Moody, a recently emigrated Scotsman working for the Company; Thomas Sturrock, a former tracker who searched for the missing girls years ago, and Knox's daughters, Susannah and Maria.

Stef Penney lets us see into the minds of almost all of her characters in a third-person, limited narrative. Only one gets something more: Mrs. Ross tells her story in the first person and is the guiding spirit of the tale.

Mrs. Ross, we learn, has her own secret history. She spent years in an insane asylum in Edinburgh, where she became addicted to laudanum and was subject to treatments ranging from cold buckets of water poured on her head to gourmet meals and weekly sex with the asylum superintendent.

Her experiences as victim and inmate have made Mrs. Ross a very good observer of other people. Of one small-minded neighbor, she thinks: "She considers herself a well-traveled woman, and from each place she has brought away a prejudice as a souvenir."

As is only fitting for a novel whose presiding inspiration is obviously the 19th century Canadian diarist Susannah Moodie ("Roughing It in the Bush"), the frigid landscape is expertly described. The settlers carve out a community in a harsh environment, but what surrounds them is harsher still: wilderness. The vast forests and treacherous plains are not benign places; they are deadly. Wolves and other predators abound, and even seasoned travelers can get lost.

Mrs. Ross, knowing she will try to follow Francis' trail through the woods and find him, thinks, "Sometimes, you find yourself looking at the forest in a different way. Sometimes it's no more than the trees that provide houses and warmth, and hide the earth's nakedness, and you're glad of it. And then sometimes, like tonight, it is a vast dark presence that you can never see the end of; it might, for all you know, have not just length and breadth to lose yourself in, but also an immeasurable depth, or something else altogether."

Mrs. Ross, Parker, and Moody travel together through the wilderness and the deepening winter weather searching for her son. The hardships they endure are compelling -- especially since we readers only experience them vicariously. Paths begin to cross, and we discover that the old searcher Sturrock knows Andrew Knox and that Knox, in fact, is the uncle of the two girls who disappeared into the woods years ago. An interesting subplot involves a piece of bone or ivory carved with enigmatic figures stolen from the murdered man -- Sturrock is searching for this; it may be a key to American Indian history.

Another subplot treats a Norwegian religious community located deep in the north where several major characters converge. The novel works itself up to a blizzard of a climax wherein most of the mysteries -- murderous, romantic, filial and sexual -- are solved. There's history, adventure, wit, and suspense. It's no surprise that The Tenderness of Wolves won Britain's Costa Book of the Year in 2006.

Americans should also love this book. It exudes a sense of manifest destiny. As Mrs. Ross muses, "I wondered, how often are we aware of irreversible forces at work while they are in operation?" Of course we rarely are, though all of our lives and the best-plotted novels result from them.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Film

Masaki Kobayashi's 'Kwaidan' Horror Films Are Horrifically Beautiful

The four haunting tales of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan are human and relatable, as well as impressive at a formal and a technical level.

Film

The Top 10 Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Films

Serious science fiction often takes a backseat to the more pulpy, crowdpleasing genre entries. Here are 10 titles far better than any "dogfight in space" adventure.

Books

'The Kill Chain': Why America Might Lose Its Next Big War

Christian Brose's defense-nerd position paper, The Kill Chain, inadvertently reveals that the Pentagon's problems (complacency, inertia, arrogance) reflect those of the country at large.

Music

2006's 'Flat-Pack Philosophy' Saw Buzzcocks Determined to Build Something of Quality

With a four-decade career under their belt, on the sixth disc in the new box-set Sell You Everything, it's heartening to see Buzzcocks refusing to settle for an album that didn't try something new.

Books

'Lie With Me': Beauty, Love and Toxic Masculinity in the Gay '80s

How do we write about repression and toxic masculinity without valorizing it? Philippe Besson's Lie With Me is equal parts poignant tribute and glaring warning.

Music

Apparat's 'Soundtrack: Capri-Revolution' Stands Alone As a Great Ambient Experience

Apparat's (aka Sascha Ring) re-imagined score from Mario Martone's 2018 Capri-Revolution works as a fine accompaniment to a meditational flight of fancy.

Music

Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers Merge Haitian Folk and Electronic Music on 'Vodou Alé'

Haitian roots music meets innovative electronics on Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers' Vodou Alé.

My Favorite Thing

Weird and Sweet, Riotous and Hushed: The Beatles' 'The White Album'

The Beatles' 'The White Album' is a piece of art that demonstrates how much you can stretch, how far you can bend, how big you really are. The album is deeply weird. It has mass. It has its own weather.

Music

Sarah Jarosz Finds Inspiration in Her Texas Roots on 'World on the Ground'

By turning to her roots in central Texas for inspiration on World on the Ground, Sarah Jarosz has crafted some of her strongest songs yet.

Music

Hinds' 'The Prettiest Curse' Is One of Victory

On The Prettiest Curse, Hinds create messy pop music that captures the vibrancy of youth without being childish.

Music

12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.