The Tenderness of Wolves

by Stef Penney
440 pages,
ISBN: 0670066109

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First Novels
by Nancy Wigston

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney (Penguin, 440 pages, $36.00, cloth, ISBN: 0670066109). Mysteries also dominate this confident and complex portrait of 1860s Ontario. Although Stef Penney, an agoraphobic, lives in Edinburgh, she is the grandniece of Norman Bethune. The characters and lives she creates¨consulting Hudson's Bay Company records from the British Museum¨attain a larger-than-life dimension. Our only first-person narrator, an aloof woman with a history of confinement in Scottish asylums, is Mrs. Ross, who discovers the bloodied corpse of Laurent Jammet, a French trapper and trader. Soon the local magistrate, various Hudson's Bay Company investigators, and acquaintances of the deceased¨including a native Canadian and a man very interested in something Jammet has acquired¨are popping in and out of the narrative with an assortment of goals in mind.
Closer to home is the problem of Mrs. Ross's teenaged son, the troubled Francis, who vanished the night of the murder. Francis at first tops the list of suspects, but is soon replaced by William Parker, a taciturn native who knew the slain man. When her son doesn't return, Mrs. Ross takes off to find him with Parker as her guide. Penney creates an engrossing narrative, connecting the dots across different social strata in the colony. Eerily adept at depicting a range of human traits¨and hinting at more¨she also teases us with an older mystery, the disappearance of two young girls from the Georgian Bay community several years before.
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. One strange northern community gives way to the next¨from a settlement of pious Norwegians to a decayed outpost peopled by those whom the Company has seen fit to exile. Something rather Conrad-like surfaces in the portrait of Mr. Stewart, the Company man gone bad. Yet masculine and feminine elements are fully balanced; there's not only the complicated Mrs. Ross and her tormented son, but also a sensual Norwegian widow named Line, determined to escape the sanctuary she has found with her fellow countrymen. This one is a powerhouse.

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