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The Tenderness of Wolvesby Stef Penney
Synopses & Reviews
A brilliant and breathtaking debut that captivated readers and garnered critical acclaim in the United Kingdom, The Tenderness of Wolves was long-listed for the Orange Prize in fiction and won the Costa Award (formerly the Whitbread) Book of the Year.
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.
"'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. (July)' Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)"
"Somewhere in the middle of reading this interesting, ambitious but, in some places, embarrassing first novel, I got to thinking about an editor's role in a writer's life. Every writer, at every stage, in every endeavor, in every genre, must learn to contend with his or her editor. The editor is both watchdog and guardian angel, there to keep the writer from looking like a fool. Stef Penney's editor... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) seems to have gone out for a cigarette break, or maybe Penney, a first novelist and therefore both innocent and arrogant, did not pay attention to what was suggested to her. So what? Didn't 'The Tenderness of Wolves' win the Costa Book of the Year award, formerly the top Whitbread prize, and isn't that a very big deal in the literary world? To that I answer: No prize on Earth can erase the embarrassment of the ending of this otherwise quite fine book. Her editor should have gotten her out of that cliche-ridden, logistical mess. The novel is set in 1867 in Canada's Northern Territory, an icy and isolated world virtually ruled by the Hudson Bay Company, a rapacious British conglomerate that dealt primarily in fur. Back in this particular day, the company served as de facto government and organized mob. The wilderness was alive with foxes and bears and wolves and rabbits. Trappers — some of them company men, some of them freelancers — hunted their prey, traded with the company and rebelled at their peril. Many a stalwart European adventurer came out to try his luck, but it was a hard and taxing life. Settlers came, too. Passing through the port of Sault Ste. Marie, heading inland from Dove River, they formed the raw little town of Caulfield, which, at this time, is less than 20 years old. Like their neighbors to the south, 200 years before, they cling to the edge of a land that is beyond imagining in its proportions. For even the hardiest Scots, who are the main characters here, the prospect — if they stop to think about it — is dreadful. The heroine of this tale, Mrs. Ross, already has faced terrible hardship. She was a well-brought-up child in the old country, but she lost everything, spent time in an asylum, suffered through an addiction to drugs and then lost a child. She has great courage, but she's frightened to death of the wilderness and what dwells there. Imagine her horror, then, when she marches off one day to give Laurent Jammet, a slovenly French trapper in a ramshackle cabin on the edge of town, a piece of her mind and finds that he's been scalped. Imagine her further discomfiture when, after she's reported this crime to the town constable (constable in name only, since the Hudson Bay Company is the only real authority here), she finds that her adopted teenage son Francis has gone missing and that he's the prime suspect. Everyone in Caulfield is up in arms, of course. This is partly because a dozen or so years ago two little girls disappeared while berry-picking in the wilderness and were never seen again — either abducted by Indians or eaten by wolves. Is this new atrocity the work of Indians, or was it committed by Francis, a boy of dubious sexuality who, when he was adopted, showed up at the Ross house dressed like a girl? And those missing sisters — what did happen to them? The dread generated by that awful event still permeates the town. The only thing to do is send out search parties, even though winter is coming. Because of the evidence of footprints, broken twigs and the like, Jammet's killer has obviously gone north. Francis has, just as obviously, gone north as well. The Hudson Bay Company sends out a party, which includes Donald Moody, a well-meaning doofus, and his half-breed friend, Jacob. Francis' father searches halfheartedly and then returns. After her husband has turned out to be such an indifferent, inefficient wimp, Mrs. Ross strikes a bargain with another half-breed, the astonishingly ugly yet paradoxically attractive Mr. Parker, and they, too, head north, in search of Francis and/or the killer. Meanwhile, in the very far north, a luckless but beautiful widow, who finds herself living in a Scandinavian religious commune, plots to go south with her children and a feckless lover. Once they leave, a party from the commune sets out after them. So now, out in the wild somewhere, are a) Jammet's killer, b) a possibly valuable treasure, c) an even more valuable treasure and d) perhaps even those missing girls from long ago. As I said, this is an interesting novel. Freezing-cold Canada proves to be a fascinating locale. The author avoids the traps of Scottish dialect; the characters speak in well-bred standard English except when they say, 'Oh yeah, sure' or utter phrases like 'slow on the uptake' twice in 14 pages. But the story falters (too many characters with nothing to do but search), and then comes the hack-movie conclusion. Looking at the bright side, the author, who is described in her bio as 'a screenwriter,' did leave out the one where two characters are blown toward the camera in front of a fiery, climactic explosion. But every other cliche from every bad movie and television thriller you've ever seen is there. No offense, but I have to ask: Does the author want to write serious literature or go out to Hollywood and work for Mike Bay? It doesn't seem fair to the reader to hang out so long in the snow, just to be blown off like some popcorn-chomping bozo in the neighborhood cinema." Reviewed by Patrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.comRachel Hartigan Shea, who is a senior editor at The Washington Post Book WorldChris Bohjalian, the author of 10 novels, including 'Midwives' and 'The Double Bind'Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
In this brutal, epic debut novel, a man is found murdered and a 17-year-old boy is on the run. While vigilantes and rescue searchers head out to look for the fugitive, all the mother of the boy wants is her son back. She will do anything to see him home safe, even at the peril of her own life.
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