The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney opens with a murder. Mrs Ross, looking for her son who had not come home for two nights goes to see if he is visiting his friend Laurent Jammet, a French trapper and former voyageur. She finds Jammet with his throat cut and her son, Francis, missing. This happens in the small village of Dove River, a settlement on the northern shore of Lake Huron during the hegemony of the Hudson Bay Company. The Company immediately sends a group of functionaries to investigate, functionaries who seem to wield more power than the local magistrate, Mr Knox.
Parker, a trapper friend of Jammet’s arrives and makes a convenient suspect as he is non-white and not-local, and the Company man tries to coerce a confession, leading Knox to intervene. He lets Parker go and Mrs Ross asks him to take her with him to look for her son while he looks for the real murderer. Sounds like a pretty straightforward mystery, right?
It is anything but. There are several stories being told at the same time. There is the long, almost mythic mystery of the Seton girls, two young children lost in the forest years ago and the lost Norwegians who rebelled against the Company and disappeared into the wild. There’s a bit of an archeological mystery centered on some carvings on a bone that hint of a lost written language of the Indians, something like the Walam Olum or Red Record. There is the conflict between the Hudson Bay Company and the trappers they exploit with their monopoly and the whispered possibility of a rival trading company. There are enough red herrings to make a stew.
The thing is, the mystery is so secondary to the story. It is about the people and how they meet their challenges, how they are challenged by the land and each other, how they are transformed by that challenge. The land, the forest are so much part of the story. “Sometimes, you find yourself looking at the forest in a different way. Sometimes it’s no more than the trees that provide houses and warmth, and hide the earth’s nakedness, and you’re glad of it. And then sometimes, like tonight, it is a vast dark presence that you can never see the end of; it might, for all you know, have not just length and breadth to lose yourself in, but also an immeasurable depth, or something else altogether.”
This is a beautifully written book. The mystery is fair, but not the most important part of the story. The people are complex. The sense of place is palpable. The language is evocative and powerful. Here is Mrs Ross talking about walking back over her own tracks in the snow. “I find that I have learnt, without realising it, to identify tracks. Every so often I see a print that I know is mine, and I step on it, to rub it out. This country is scored with such marks; slender traces of human desire. But these trails, like this bitter path, are fragile, winterworn, and when the snow falls again, or when it thaws in spring, all trace of our passing will vanish.”
The title might imply that wolves play a big role in the story. Certainly they are suspect in the disappearance of the Seton girls. Parker tells the story of an abandoned wolf pup he raised that as a pup was playful but as he matures, seemed to remember he was a wolf. Parker explained there is a Chippewa word that means “the sickness of long thinking” the desire to return to the past, the known, toward home. That idea is integral to the story as well, the turning toward home. There is so much humanity in this book, an understanding of people and so many people of understanding.
I chose to read The Tenderness of Wolves because it was 97° and it seemed a good idea to read something taking place in a cold place. While reading does not change the actual temperature, it does make it more bearable, especially when there are magical descriptions like this.
“The aurora shimmers in the north like a beautiful dream, and the wind has gone. The sky is vertiginously high and clear, and the deep cold is back; a taut, ringing cold that says there is nothing between me and the infinite depth of space. I crane skywards long after it sends me dizzy. I am aware that I am walking a precarious path, surrounded on all sides by uncertainty and the possibility of disaster. Nothing is within my control. The sky yawns above me like the abyss, and there is nothing at all to stop me from falling, nothing except the wild maze of stars.”