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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review of "The Tenderness of Wolves" by Stef Penney

3 Stars
I chose to read this book because it won a Costa Book of the Year Award (for 2006), and I’ve often liked the winners of this particular literary prize.  I was also intrigued by the repeated reference to the fact that the author set this book in Canada though she had never visited the country; apparently she suffered from agoraphobia for years and so relied strictly on research for details about the setting.

The novel is set in 1867and begins in Dove River, a small settlement on Georgian Bay.  The body of Laurent Jammet, a trapper and trader, is discovered by his neighbour, Mrs. Ross.  Representatives of the Hudson Bay Company are called to investigate.  Mrs. Ross’ adopted son, Francis, has gone missing and he becomes a major suspect.  Mrs. Ross sets out with William Parker, an Indian tracker and another suspect in the murder, to find her son who himself seems to have been following a set of tracks.  An adventure/survival story is thereby joined to a murder mystery.

Everyone in this book seems to go on a journey looking for someone; the supposedly isolated woods around Lake Huron have a lot of people travelling through them in the winter.   Mrs. Ross and Parker set off in search of Francis; David Moody, an HBC representative, and Jacob, his Indian companion, set off in search of Francis, Mrs. Ross and Parker; a search party of five sets out to find Francis, Mrs. Ross, Parker, Mr. Moody, and Jacob; and there are even flashbacks to the searches for two teenaged girls who went missing twenty years earlier.  Some searches are successful, but some people find only themselves at the end of their journeys.

The novel lacks focus.  There are so many characters.  Besides Mrs. Ross, William Parker, David Moody, Jacob, and Francis, individual  and specific attention is given to Angus Ross, Francis’ father; Andrew Knox, the magistrate of Dove River, and his two daughters, Susannah and Maria; Mackinley, the leader of the HBC investigators; Thomas Sturrock, an itinerant searcher and former journalist; three residents of Himmelvanger, a cloistered religious village; several people who live and work at Hanover House, an old fort; and even Dr. Watson, an asylum superintendent.  There are several chance encounters amongst these characters:  Maria meets a man in Sault Ste. Marie whom Thomas had known in Toronto; David meets a woman whom Thomas had met years earlier in Burkes Falls; Parker has a connection to the husband of one of the women living in Himmelvanger. 

And there are too many subplots.  Besides the murder investigation, there’s a plot involving a Norwegian religious settlement, another about a bone tablet which seems to be a Rosetta Stone for a native language, and a third about the decades-old mystery of missing sisters.  All three of these subplots are largely abandoned.  And then there are the love stories; love features prominently in the stories of several of the characters.  A potential reader should be warned that there are a lot of loose ends at the end of the book.  (The murder case is solved, but by the time the murderer is identified, the reader may not really care since it has become obvious for some time that the innocent will not be punished.)   In fact, there are unanswered questions throughout; one that bothered me throughout was how Mrs. Ross came to leave the mental asylum in which she resided for years.

I don’t understand the title since the tenderness of wolves is not discussed.  There is a story about a wolf cub who is raised as a pet but who eventually leaves its master:  “’The Chippewa have a word for it – it means ‘the sickness of long thinking’.  You cannot tame a wild animal, because it will always remember where it is from, and yearn to go back.’”  The Sickness of Long Thinking is mentioned again at the end and explains one person’s choice, and it seems that other characters suffer from this ailment as well, so it would have been a much more appropriate title. 
As I mentioned at the beginning, I was interested in how many people were surprised that the author wrote so convincingly about a place she had never visited.  Many writers never visit the settings of their novels so I don’t understand why this fact is noteworthy.  But because Penney’s lack of firsthand knowledge and reliance only on research were emphasized, I found myself looking for possible errors.  Perhaps I found one:  a woman mentions working in Kitchener but the city now known as Kitchener was named Berlin from 1854 until World War II.

I do not understand why this novel won such a prestigious award.  Looking back at the longlist, A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon would have gotten my vote.  The Tenderness of Wolves has potential but should have received some judicious editing.