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.
"Stef Penney, who in an even more unusual coup, won the first novel prize with a murder saga, The Tenderness of Wolves. The (Costa) judges said it made them feel "enveloped in the snowy wastes" of Canada in 1867. Penney, agoraphobic at the time, did all her research in the British Library." The Guardian
"Confident and complex portrait of 1860s Ontario. . . . Between twists and turns of plot, Penney evokes the land -- its shades of light and changes of weather, its marshes and treacherous waters. Rarely has winter seemed so febrile. . . . This one is a powerhouse." Books of Canada
"An original and readable mixture of mystery and history, with a good dollop of old-fashioned adventure." The Times (London)
"A fascinating, suspense-filled adventure, a refreshing contrast to the conventional murder mystery." The Sunday Telegraph (London)
"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." The Globe and Mail (Canada)
"A quite remarkable debut novel set in the snowy backwoods of Canada in 1867 . . . atmospheric and delicately written mystery."Birmingham Post
"Penney's descriptions of the harsh landscape and the deprivation of living there are vivid and excellent." The Daily Telegraph (Australia)
"The novel works itself up to a blizzard of a climax wherein most of the mysteries murderous, romantic, filial and sexual 7#151; are solved. There's history, adventure, wit, and suspense. It's no surprise that The Tenderness of Wolves won Britain's Costa Book of the Year in 2006. Americans should also love this book." Philadelphia Inquirer
"The author is a recovering agoraphobic. And she claims to have never set foot in Canada. The latter is a remarkable fact, considering what a vivid sense of place Penney has provided, and certainly speaks to the author's imaginative talents. But the former hints at the novel's underlying power. Canada is only a metaphor for a far more isolated and lonely setting: the human soul." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[An] elegiac musing on the nature of isolation." Christian Science Monitor
"[A] first-class murder mystery, which must be doubly commended considering that the setting and the time." St. Petersburg Times
"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
"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
"The novel has a large canvas and . . . the story twists and turns. The Tenderness of Wolves is an entertaining and well-written adventure thriller." -- The Spectator
About the Author
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. The Tenderness of Wolves is her first novel.
Reading Group Guide
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.
Enhance Your Book Club Experience
1. Stef Penney is praised for her ability to create suspense and captivate her readers. She uses foreshadowing, a literary device that entails dropping subtle hints of what is to come throughout the novel. Sometimes these hints point to a plot twist, while others pull readers breathlessly through to the climax of the story. Draw a map of the clues dropped throughout The Tenderness of Wolves and identify what aspects of the plot they pointed to. For fun, have each member of your book club mark on the map the point at which they "figured it out."
2. The conflict between the Hudson Bay Company and free traders, as well as the eventual formation of competing companies, is at the heart of this novel. Get a flavor for this volatile situation by doing a little background research. You can start here: www.canadiana.org/hbc/intro_e.html.
3. After she burns her eyes from the glare off the frozen tundra, Mrs. Ross enjoys a piece of maple sugar -- a gift from her traveling companion, William Parker. Today, you can purchase a variety of maple candies, from maple cream -- filled chocolates to maple fudge to the traditional favorite, maple syrup. Try a taste yourself, or bring a box to your next book club meeting to share. You can purchase maple treats at most candy or gourmet food stores, such as www.vermontcountrystore.com.