Review: The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

I chose this as the second book to count towards the Canadian Book Challenge #4

In 1867 in the small Canadian town of Caulfield a French trapper Laurent Jammet, is murdered. His body is discovered by a neighbour, Mrs Ross, whose own son Francis disappears at around the same time and some of the town’s inhabitants think he might have killed Jammet. However a friend of Jammet’s, a mixed-race trapper named Parker, is also suspected of the murder and is arrested. When Hudson’s Bay Company men are sent for to sort out the legalities they are unsure of who has committed the crime and eventually set out to search for Francis Ross in the dangerous, snow-covered wilderness.

Set exactly 100 years before I was born, what struck me particularly about this book was its sense of time and place. The simple problems of staying alive in such a harsh environment without access to any conveniences of our modern world were starkly portrayed. Several incidents in the small town’s history reveal how easy it must have been to die a fairly grim death in this new world. The book also depicts the political setting in the way society was governed for the most part by ‘the Company’ (a fur trading company that acted as a de facto government in much of Canada during this period) using a fairly basic system of justice that placed white men squarely at the top of the food chain.

There are a lot of characters in this book which makes it hard for very many of them to be depicted in much depth. I think the book might have been more successful for me if there were fewer characters explored more deeply. The standout exception is the character of Mrs Ross who is particularly well-drawn and is also the only one who reveals anything much about her past before the events of this book. Her willingness to undergo any amount of hardship and face any danger in fierce protectiveness of her son is both believable and very engaging and her journey, particularly during the second half of the book, is worth reading for its own sake.

As a work of crime fiction I found the book less successful than as a piece of historical fiction as the solving of the mystery is not really the heart of the novel and even seems to be forgotten for several large chunks of the narrative. For me the book did stretch the bounds of narrative credibility at a couple of points (there were so many separate groups trailing each other through the wilderness they just about needed traffic lights) but I did thoroughly enjoy being transported virtually back to this time (all the while thanking my lucky stars for being born at a time offering more creature comforts to women in particular) and the personal journey of Mrs Ross is worth reading for its own sake.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 3.5/5

Publisher Quercus [2006]; ISBN 9781905204823; Length 420 pages

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The Tenderness of Wolves has also been reviewed by Maxine from Petrona and at Reading Matters

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15 Responses to Review: The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

  1. Bernadette – Thanks for this excellent review. I have to say, I have a weakness for well-written historical fiction, so this book interested me right away. Even if there are more characters than would be ideal, it sounds like something I would really enjoy : ).


  2. I think you would like it Margot as the Mrs Ross character is really well done. I just think books should be free of genre labels then we wouldn’t come to them with particular expectations


  3. JoV says:

    Great review Bernadette. I wanted to read this book for awhile now. I didn’t know that it should be a crime fiction. But will surely look out for it one day.


  4. Maxine says:

    Great review, Bernadette, and I think (from memory) my opinion of this book is very close to yours. I thought the last part of it was the weaker part, when the searchers came to that settlement and more characters/dynamics were added to the mix. But overall I found it a very powerful novel and really enjoyed reading it, and experiencing that sense of time and place you identify in your review. I, too, very much got to like the character of Mrs Ross, having been somewhat puzzled by and uninvolved with her at first, but gradually getting more and more pulled in, enjoying her back-story also.


  5. kathy durkin says:

    I think what I enjoyed the most about “The Tenderness of Wolves,” is the sense of place. The location and weather were almost characters. The book transported me to the 19th century in the cold, snowy Canadian woods, with its sense of quiet and isolation.
    I felt like I was there. The plot was interesting but slow. I liked the main character and her loyalty to her son. But I read the book slowly, enjoying and feeling the setting more than anything.


  6. Marg says:

    Thank goodness! I read rave review after rave review of this book and then I think that maybe I just didn’t get it. I ended up giving it about the same grade as you did, and definitely felt that it had the same weaknesses – all those people wandering around in the wilderness and so many different perspectives!


  7. BooksPlease says:

    I think I should read this book soon. It’s been on my shelves for ages, somehow the rave reviews turned me off it, but your review brings it back into focus. I do like historical fiction.


  8. Sounds interesting … I’ll have to check it out.


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  10. John Mutford says:

    Stef Penney’s been on my radar for a while, so I might give it a chance. That “the Company” sounds based on the Hudson Bay Company, which I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with, is a huge draw.


  11. Great Review! I’ve been wanting to read this ever since it came out. Think I’ll go put it on my wishlist before I forget about it again!


  12. It sounds like an interesting read at least for the historical perspective. I have moved to Canada from Australia and am sometimes stunned at how people manage the winter conditions even with today’s creature comforts. It is enthralling to read how people were able to survive in earlier periods. Great review!


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  15. Juan Antonio says:

    No puedo estar de acuerdo contigo. El libro merece un 5 sobre 5. Lo que consideras un defecto, el gran numero de personajes sin definir perfectamente, es su mejor virtud. Es un cuadro impresionista, de brochazos gruesos que nos permiten interpretar por nosotros mismos a esos personajes, ricos, complejos, llenos de matices. Y la coordinación entre las diferentes tramas argumentales es fuera de lo comun.


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