The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

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.

RATING 8 / 10