Friday, November 29, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney was a 2006 Costa Book of the Year and received a fair amount of critical acclaim. I bought the paperback, and it’s possible it has been on my bookshelf six or seven years. Once again, the TBR pile challenge (hosted by Roof Beam Reader) is helping me to slowly clear the backlog of books I once enthusiastically purchased but never got around to reading.

The Tenderness of Wolves is literary historical fiction billed as a mystery. Set in the frigid Northern Territory in 1867, it begins with the murder (a scalping) of a French trapper. The body is discovered by Mrs. Ross (the sole first person narrator). She reports the murder to the town’s most prominent citizen, Mr. Knox. He reports it to the "Company," the fur trading company that has more or less of a monopoly on the dealings in that vast area. The Company sends out a team of investigators to catch the murderer. To Mrs. Ross’s dismay, her seventeen-year-old son disappeared the same morning, making him a suspect.

Another suspect presents himself by appearing in the victim’s house, where Mrs. Ross catches him. William Parker, a friend of the murdered man who is also a trapper and who is half-Native American, is immediately arrested for the crime. But not everyone believes he is guilty. Upon his release, he sets off in search of the real murderer, serving as Mrs. Ross’s guide. She is in pursuit of her son.

There are numerous subplots wrapped around this basic plot–the search for the trapper’s killer and the question of why he was killed in the first place. Much of the book is told from the third person viewpoints of other characters, alternating with Mrs. Ross’s first person viewpoint, which takes a little getting used to at first, but which serves the book well.

Still, despite the fact that the main plot involves a search for a murderer, it doesn’t read like a basic who-dunnit. There are not really clues to follow–not about the murder. There are questions about the various people and their motivations for behaving as they do. There is a mysterious piece of bone with markings on it that brings a separate plot question into the mix that has little to do with the main story. There is also a subplot of two sisters who had gone missing into the woods many years ago. These mini-mysteries intersect with the story of Mrs. Ross and Parker’s search for the murderer, but mainly tell stories in themselves.

The novel is heavy on atmosphere. The bitter cold and emptiness of the Northern Territories is emphasized, giving a sense of the loneliness. There is a good deal of examination of the psychology of the numerous characters, making for a read that is insightful, but with a storyline that dragged at times. Not all the subplots were equally interesting, but each contributed something to the whole.

This novel was also long-listed for the Orange Prize. The writing is beautiful and it’s one of those sad, haunting novels that, although not exactly enjoyable, is altogether worthwhile.

In addition to the TBR pile challenge, this is my 35th book read for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.


  1. Huh - interesting! I grew up in the Northwest Territories in Canada, and so the "bitter cold and [empty]" atmosphere sounds really familiar!

  2. I'm curious about how the title connects to the novel, and whether the theme of wolves is significant.

    1. During their trek to find the killer, Mrs. Ross and Parker do talk about wolves and the possibility of wolves being around them in the night. They even see a few at times. And one of the subplots revolves around two little girls who went missing many years ago- and one theory was that they were eaten by wolves. So wolves weave in and out of the storylines. But I don't know why its called "Tenderness" of wolves.