I picked up The Tenderness of Wolves from amongst my tbr pile partly because my course book on Creative Writing refers to Stef Penney as an author who wrote about a country (Canada) that she had never actually been to. Penney has managed to provide a background, a reality of setting that was arrived at through research and you would not know that she has never even been to the country, let alone the particular environment she writes about. This emphasises the importance of the research a writer needs to do when writing a book: you cannot just pick it all out of your own brains and memory and whatever you write about, research is important, whether that is first hand (your own ‘knowledge’ or through secondary sources (as Penney did). Usually it’s a bit of both, I think.
The story is set in the 19th century when first settlers carved out an existence in very harsh environments, often far removed from civilisation and when ‘The Company’ (the trading ……… ) employed people who lived in harsh and hostile circumstances for very long stretches, without access to family or friends, thrown back on their own survival skills and gloominess during endless and very cold and harsh winters. At the first level it’s about a murder. Laurent Jammet, originally from Quebec, who lives in a cabin away from the riverbank in the small settlement of Dove River, is killed, he has been scalped. Mrs. Ross (the first person character in the book, who emigrated with her husband to North America from the Highlands of Scotland ) finds him. At the same time that Jammet is murdered, the woman’s son Francis disappears and she goes after him, to try and find out where he is and to clear his name.
What I found interesting when reading this book are the different points of view that are used throughout. Each (short) chapter follows a different character, there is Mrs Ross, who gives us the first person character, almost lining up with the authorial point of view: the illusion is that the ‘I’ is the author and also narrates the other chapters, as if she knows what these other characters do when she is not actually with them. The ‘I’ and the omniscient viewpoint are cleverly worked out. Of course, that’s an illusion. Penney uses the mixture of viewpoints exactly to keep the story flowing and to give us the ‘whole’ story, all the essential parts that will lead to the eventual outcome, when we understand the plot. Characters are introduced one at the time, and sometimes we are with Elizabeth, then with Donald (Mr Moody), with Mary or with Francis, and so on. Every time you start another chapter you have to shift your chair and get into the right place in order to understand the whole story, and so you may put have to put yourself in the place of Donald, or Francis, or Elizabeth or….
As well as managing to present us with one piece of the puzzle at the time that will make up the whole of the story, so that we become aware of everything that is relevant, this approach also makes for a certain discontinuity, and I felt distanced from what was happening, especially in the beginning of the book, as every time I had to try and refocus in order to come to grips with the role of another character. The author keeps pushing into the helicopter to take another ride to another place and another person, going from here to there and back again.
This is I think why I did not feel that I became really involved with any of the characters, they suddenly disappeared from view, never became mine, even though I went on reading for the sake of the story, I ended up wanting to know what happened, who had done it and why. I think the writing is clever and skillful and ultimately the story is quite interesting but it is not a story that I felt part of.
I did not quite work out what the title was meant to imply. Perhaps one of you does understand? Wolves are always in the background throughout the story, they are threatening but most of the time it is clear that wolves are not the dangerous beasts of prey that we expect them to be. In the very first chapter when Laurent Jammet is introduced he is in the local store with a dead wolf over his shoulder and it turns out that he is quite knowledgeable about wolves:
Jammet knew what he was talking about, as he had caught more wolves than anyone else I know.
Nevertheless, the only killing wolves do in the book is when they kill the sick horse that Line and her children have with them when they escape from the religious community. Otherwise, wolves are a threat in the background but every time again turn out not to be the real culprits of death or mayhem. Humans are much more dangerous!
It’s a clever book and very well researched with enough of a thrill to keep you hooked and wanting to find out how everyone ends up. Ultimately everything falls into place and by the end of the book I had the satisfying feeling that yes, it all fits together, it works.