"The Tenderness of Wolves"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JULY 10, 2007)
In her fairly assured debut The Tenderness of Wolves, Scottish author Stef Penney conjures up a town in Canada more than a hundred years ago. Caulfield by Dove River, was settled in 1860. When the novel opens, it is 1867 when the town is still young and its habitants a mix of Scots and Yankees, grind along and make a life for themselves in the harsh snowy landscape. At the time there is vibrant business being conducted by the mother country, England, for most of the countryside’s natural resources. The trade is managed by the Hudson Bay Company known simply as the “Company” and its outposts, all “stripping the land of its wealth, scattering crumbs in return.” Local trappers sell precious furs (the silver fox is particularly valued) to the Company and business is good for the most part. The problem is, as in any thriving capitalist economy, there is competition brewing in the form of an up-and-coming trading company called the North America Company and that creates quite a bit of resentment and worry among the Company members.
It is against this background that in the town of Caulfield, an outsider, French-speaking Laurent Jammet is found dead in his cabin. He has been scalped and there are two sets of tracks leading from his cabin through the snow. What’s worse, the townspeople soon realize that a local kid, 17-year-old Francis Ross has disappeared too. It is now up to the townspeople to find out if the two incidents are related in some way. Is Francis the murderer or was it someone from the Company who couldn’t stomach Jammet’s increasing affiliation with its new rival?
Francis’ mother, Mrs. Ross, is convinced her son is not Jammet’s killer. Along with a half-native William Parker, she sets off in the wild to track down the set of footprints and possibly find her son and Jammet’s killer. As the journey following the tracks unfolds, Penney introduces us to an assortment of characters – some in the town, some working for the Company, all beset with their problems and worries.
Penney’s writing is sparse but vivid: “Mr. Knox has a poor, grayish complexion that makes me think of liver salts, and is tall and thin, with a hatchet profile that seems permanently poised to strike down the unworthy—useful attributes for a magistrate.” She also does a wonderful job of portraying the harsh and relentless snowy landscape hinting at the presence of predatory wolves silently watching the humans lumber on by. The Tenderness of Wolves also does a good job of pointing out the prejudices harbored against Native Americans—the perceptions of Indians as a “Stone Age people” and the prejudice “a written culture holds against an oral one.”
Tenderness suffers from an excess of plot lines not all of which are brought to a satisfying conclusion or tied up convincingly. From almost the beginning of the book, we learn there is a tablet with mysterious hieroglyphics that Laurent Jammet was in possession of and that was sought after, by at least a couple of different people. In the end, we never do find out what happened to it or what significance the tablet carried. There’s also the case of the mysterious disappearance of three girls many years ago that has been the stuff of legend in this backwoods country. Other parallel story lines such as the religious village of Himmelvanger and the goings on there, add depth to the story but do little to further the story.
Penney’s strength lies in portraying all her characters as human beings with real feelings and above all, petty failings. One of the most terrifying scenes in the book is when one of the women from Himmelvanger, Line, huddles in the snow in the forest desperately alone and lost, with her children clinging to her. The image of the dense forest closing in on her is terrifying enough. What’s worse though is the awful realization that it was her lover who deserted her and abandoned her to this fate. Penney beautifully shows the worst kind of terror comes not from the animals but the humans that inhabit these vast, desolate frontiers. As it turns out, the wolves leave you alone; just watch your back for the men.
- Amazon readers rating: from 104 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Tenderness of Wolves at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Canadian Living interview with Stef Penney
- Scotsman.com interview with Stef Penney
- Reading Guide for The Invisible Ones
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About the Author:
Stef Penney was born and grew up in Edinburgh. She turned to film-making after a degree in Philosophy and Theology from Bristol University and a variety of jobs in this country and abroad. She made three short films before studying Film and TV in Bournemouth, and on graduation was selected for the Carlton Television New Writers Scheme.
Her novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, won the COSTA Award for Best First Novel and overall COSTA award for Best Novel 2007. (COSTA Award is the former Whitbread Award.) On leaving university, Stef became agoraphobic and could barely travel. She has never been to Canada and researched The Tenderness of Wolves at The British Library. Now recovered, Stef lives in East London.