The Tenderness of Wolves
Stef Penney, 2006
Simon and Schuster
Winner, Costa (Whitbread) Award
The year is 1867. Winter has just tightened its grip on Dove River, a tiny isolated settlement in the Northern Territory, when a man is brutally murdered. Laurent Jammett had been a voyageur for the Hudson Bay Company before an accident lamed him four years earlier. The same accident afforded him the little parcel of land in Dove River, land that the locals called unlucky due to the untimely death of the previous owner.
A local woman, Mrs. Ross, stumbles upon the crime scene and sees the tracks leading from the dead man's cabin north toward the forest and the tundra beyond. It is Mrs. Ross's knock on the door of the largest house in Caulfield that launches the investigation. Within hours she will regret that knock with a mother's love—for soon she makes another discovery: her seventeen-year-old son Francis has disappeared and is now considered a prime suspect.
In the wake of such violence, people are drawn to the crime and to the township—Andrew Knox, Dove River's elder statesman; Thomas Sturrock, a wily American itinerant trader; Donald Moody, the clumsy young Company representative; William Parker, a half-breed Native American and trapper who was briefly detained for Jammett's murder before becoming Mrs. Ross's guide. But the question remains: do these men want to solve the crime or exploit it?
One by one, the searchers set out from Dove River following the tracks across a desolate landscape—home to only wild animals, madmen, and fugitives—variously seeking a murderer, a son, two sisters missing for seventeen years, and a forgotten Native American culture before the snows settle and cover the tracks of the past for good.
In an astonishingly assured debut, Stef Penney deftly weaves adventure, suspense, revelation, and humor into an exhilarating thriller; a panoramic historical romance; a gripping murder mystery; and, ultimately, with the sheer scope and quality of her storytelling, an epic for the ages. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Edinburg, Scotland, UK
• Education—Bristol University
• Awards—Costa (Whitbread) Award
• Currently—lives in London, England
Stef Penney was born and grew up in Edinburgh. After earning a degree in philosophy and theology from Bristol University, she turned to filmmaking, studying film and TV at Bournemouth College of Art. On graduation she was selected for the Carlton Television New Writers Scheme. She is a screenwriter.
Her debut novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, won the 2006 Costa Award. She published The Invisible Ones in 2012. (From the publisher.)
The Tenderness of Wolves stood out from a very strong shortlist. We felt enveloped by the snowy landscape and gripped by the beautiful writing and effortless story-telling. It is a story of love, suspense and beauty. We couldn't put it down.
Costa Award Committee
An original and readable mixture of mystery and history, with a good dollop of old-fashioned adventure.
The Times (London)
In suitable Jack London style for a setting in Canada's snowy wastes, wolves wander in and out of this suspenseful 19th-century epic, offering a leitmotif of constant unease. So begins what masquerades as a traditional murder quiz but quickly broadens out to encompass other lines of inquiry—the mystery of two long-missing young sisters, the quest for a forgotten native American culture, the twists and turns of an unusual love story. Stef Penney is from Edinburgh and claims never to have visited Canada—impressive, then, that the land of her imagination convinces.
The Guardian (UK)
An entertaining, well-constructed mystery.... sexy, suspenseful, densely plotted storytelling...a novel with far greater ambitions than your average thriller, combining as it does the themes of Conrad's Heart of Darkness with Atwood's Survival, and lashing them to a story that morphs Ian Rankin with The Mad Trapper of Rat River.
Globe and Mail (Canada)
The frigid isolation of European immigrants living on the 19th-century Canadian frontier is the setting for British author Penney's haunting debut. Seventeen-year-old Francis Ross disappears the same day his mother discovers the scalped body of his friend, fur trader Laurent Jammet, in a neighboring cabin. The murder brings newcomers to the small settlement, from inexperienced Hudson Bay Company representative Donald Moody to elderly eccentric Thomas Sturrock, who arrives searching for a mysterious archeological fragment once in Jammet's possession. Other than Francis, no real suspects emerge until half-Indian trapper William Parker is caught searching the dead man's house. Parker escapes and joins with Francis's mother to track Francis north, a journey that produces a deep if unlikely bond between them. Only when the pair reaches a distant Scandinavian settlement do both characters and reader begin to understand Francis, who arrived there days before them. Penney's absorbing, quietly convincing narrative illuminates the characters, each a kind of outcast, through whose complex viewpoints this dense, many-layered story is told.
British filmmaker Penney sets her intriguing, well-wrought novel in a 19th-century Canadian farming community up-ended by the murder of a lone fur trapper. In the town of Dove River on the north shore of Georgian Bay, a middle-aged farmer's wife we know only as Mrs. Ross discovers the body of French trapper Laurent Jammet, scalped and with his throat cut. The leaders of the community and the all-important Hudson Bay Company men gather to make sense of the killing, which revives sore memories of teenage sisters Amy and Eve Seton, who set out on a picnic 15 years before and never returned. Mrs. Ross is particularly concerned about Jammet's murder because 17-year-old Francis, an Irish orphan she and her husband took in when he was five, has not come home from a fishing trip. Suspicion falls on the boy, who was known to frequent Jammet's cabin. Several other characters emerge with ties to the dead man, including Toronto lawyer Thomas Sturrock, who comes sniffing around for an ancient marked bone that might prove of invaluable archaeological consequence, and shady half-Indian intruder William Parker, who traded with Jammett. The first-person account of Mrs. Ross alternates with sections concerning Francis, who's being nursed by the kindly Norwegian inhabitants of Himmelvanger after collapsing with exhaustion while following the trail of Jammet's murderer. His determined mother has set out to find him; other search parties also track Francis, as well as Parker, runaways from Himmelvanger, people lost in the snow and the killer. Penney offers numerous strings to untangle, but moments of love amid the gelid wastes add some warmth to her teeming, multi-character tale. Winner of the U.K. Costa Bookof the Year award for 2006, a striking debut by a writer with tremendous command of language, setting and voice.
1. The novel is divided into four parts: Disappearance, The Fields of Heaven, The Winter Partners, and The Sickness of Long Thinking. Characterize each of these parts by what occurs within them and discuss why you think the author chose this format.
2. The people of Dove River are mostly settlers from foreign countries who have a very particular worldview rooted in their own struggle for survival. In what ways are the children in this book reflections of their parents? In what ways have they broken from their parents' examples? Does this lead to joy or sorrow? Give examples.
3. Living so rustically in such a closed society has given rise to a very particular set of rules in Dove River, such as the expectation that neighbors will make return offerings in kind when they've borrowed something. What other rules of survival—either literally or socially—are presented in this novel?
4. Francis is introduced as a mystery from his first day in Dove River: He arrives dressed as a girl for unknown reasons. Did you suspect that his relationship with Jammet was more than a friendship? Why or why not?
5. The Tenderness of Wolves is a story told from the perspective of several different characters, but Mrs. Ross's sections are the only ones written in first person. What effect does this have on your reading experience? Why do you think the author does this?
6. Mrs. Ross is always referred to formally as "Mrs. Ross," even by the narrator. What is the significance of this choice?
7. On page 154, Parker explains what the "sickness of long thinking" is to Mrs. Ross. Who in this story is suffering from the sickness of long thinking? Support your opinion with examples from the novel.
8. The author has been applauded for her ability to build suspense. Identify some of the clues she subtly drops along the way and explain how they either misdirected you or gave you hints toward solving the various mysteries of the novel.
9. Donald tries to elicit sympathy from Elizabeth for her father on page 338 by telling her, "It's only human to want an answer." Do you think this explanation satisfies her? Would it satisfy you? Why or why not? Who else in this novel is searching for answers? Does anyone find what they are looking for?
10. In contrast to most of the other relationships in this novel, Line and Espen seem to have a deep passion for one another. Were you surprised that he abandons her? Why or why not?
11. The women in this novel find themselves in situations of varying frustration and sorrow. Compare and contrast these characters: Susannah and Maria, Mrs. Ross, Ann Pretty, Line, and Elizabeth Bird. What do they have in common, and how are they different? Do you feel sympathy for any of them? Why or why not?
12. Explore the symbolism of Donald's spectacles and his near-sightedness. What does this symbol tell you about his character? What is it that he sees most clearly just before his death?
13. Do you think that Mrs. Ross really loves William Parker, or is it something else? What did you expect would happen to Mrs. Ross when she left with Parker to track down Francis?
14. The backdrop of Canada, still largely unsettled in the mid- to late 1800s, provides a hauntingly beautiful and frighteningly dangerous setting for the lives of these very different people. How does the wilderness change the characters in this novel?
15. What is the significance of the title, The Tenderness of Wolves? Relate it to the story and give examples to support your interpretation.
(Questions provided by publisher. Also, see Author Q&A on publisher website.)
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