The Tenderness of Wolves – Stef Penney
I usually stay away from suspense of murder-mystery books but had to read this for our book club. And once again, how pleasantly surprised I was at the way I received it. The story, set in 1867 Canada tells of the murder of a French man called Laurent, after which, a local boy called Francis disappears. The narrator is Francis’ mother, (Mrs. Ross)who in a quest to prove her son’s innocence, sets out to find him, travelling on foot through the vast forests and landscapes of Canada. What is interesting is that as a young woman, she breaks all traditional rules by travelling with a Native Indian tracker called Parker, and throughout the book there is a feeling that some romantic relationship will emerge between the two. The book highlights the racist beliefs of the time that White people were inherently more intelligent than the native Indian’s, something that is presented as an indisputable fact by characters such as Storrock, who at one point in the book states that Kahon’wes, a native Indian was an intelligent writer and journalist, gifted and educated and must therefore have white blood in him. Such views, along with beliefs about women’s roles and the rules that governed their behaviour, reflect the time in which this novel was set. The significance of the book’s title emerges when we hear of the disappearance of a couple of local girls and it is widely believed that they must have been eaten by wolves. It is Parker who tells us that wolves do not attack people, that they are curious of people but do not attack without provocation, hence their tenderness. He also points out that wolves would not eat an entire corpse so their would be traces of a corpse if this did happen. In the end, we realise that the real tragedy is that in this story, the men are actually more dangerous than the wolves (particularly Stewart, Line’s lover).
The best part of this book is the description given by the author of the landscape and the bitter cold weather, with snow making travel difficult and dangerous. The first comments at our book club were about how we all could actually ‘feel’ the cold while reading the book. I know as I stayed fixated to the book I was every once in a while checking the temperature of the room, convinced that it was getting colder and colder (and I read this book in November in Kuwait when it was still warm). This is perhaps the best asset of the book, especially given that Penney has never travelled to Canada. Her descriptions are powerful and compelling. The book also had some very scary moments, one scene in particular when Line and her children are stranded in the middle of nowhere and have no sense of direction. There is a cold realisation that this could be a reality from which they never survive. Such images challenged our otherwise romantic notions of the snow (I felt happy reading this nearing Christmas time when I have beautiful images of snow and crispy fires burning to keep us warm).
The book had some interesting sidelines, though the end was incomplete which some book club members were disappointed about. We were not sure about what had actually happened to the missing girls, though we were given a few inconclusive leads. Other questions that remained unanswered were ‘Why had Mrs Ross been in an Asylum and what was the link with that and the story?’, ‘What happened in the end to the Tablet, and had it ever been significant?’ and ‘What was Mrs. Ross’ first name?’. This is a book I would recommend to other readers.