The Tenderness of Wolves

August 5, 2009 at 12:00 am 1 comment

A dozen years ago, there was nothing here but trees. The country to the north of here is a mean land that is either bog or stones, where even the willows and tamaracks cannot take hold. But near the river the soil is soft and deep, the  forest around it so dark green it is almost black, and the sharp-scented silence feels as deep and endless as the sky. My first reaction, when I saw it, was to burst into tears.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney is a mystery, but really it seems to be more about images, atmosphere, and character sketches than plot. The story is essentially that Laurent Jammet, a fur trader in the remote Northern Territory (I can only assume she means the Dominion of Canada?), is murdered in a peculiar way, and the main character’s son goes missing at the same time. There are a few Brokeback Mountain-style twists, there are several archaeological developments of interest, and there is love lost and found.

The real star, though, is the landscape and how it echoes the characters’ sense of alienation. The story takes place in a tiny town called Dove River, where it’s a three-day walk to the nearest community, a tiny little settlement of Norwegian Lutherans dedicated to living sacred lives — which no one in Dove River even knew was there until the murder took place. Isolation doesn’t even begin to describe it. Fittingly, perhaps, it’s also dangerously cold all the time. That three-day walk could result in death by exposure, as it nearly does for several of the characters.

This coldness and isolation is mirrored in the characters and how they react to each other. A pair of sisters are in love with the same man, but never realize it because they speak so seldom, and a mother learns her neighbor has been making paedophiliac advances on her son only after this has been going on for a year, and even then she had to trek to the religious community to find that out. The same woman also realizes she’s not in love with her husband on the same trip.

The loneliness inside these characters is so profound that it’s almost jarring when one woman thinks she has a real personal connection with a man whom she later has an affair with. Perhaps this loneliness is due to the fact that this book is populated with people who don’t really belong where they are, examples being an insane asylum escapee, a woman who was kidnapped by Native Americans as a child and now lives as one of them, and a half-Native American trapper who, due to his race, isn’t really accepted anywhere.

At the end of the novel, despite some promising movements toward real camaraderie, the characters are right back where they started. The boy is closeted to his father, the woman realizes she doesn’t even know the man she thinks she fell in love with instead of her husband, and the man the sisters are in love with dies without telling anyone but the reader whom he loves.

Overall, this book is terribly depressing, and more than a little bleak — but beautiful at the same time, much like I would imagine the landscape in a northern Canadian winter would be. Definitely diverting, anyway, and perfect for those who need a little chill in the middle of another sticky August!


Entry filed under: Historical Fiction.

Teaser Tuesday: YA Week The Last of the Mohicans

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  August 5, 2009 at 6:17 am

    Bleak! It also sounds fairly convoluted with all these unhappy people and their baggage running around. I think I may hold off and wait for a happy, by also chilly, mystery for this humid August. :)


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