Summer School Book One: The Tenderness of Wolves ~ Stef Penney

51gTxN+G1cLThe first book that we read for this year’s Summer School was Stef Penney’s Costa winning novel, The Tenderness of Wolves.  For me, this was actually a third read and it says a lot for the strength of the book that I was still able to enjoy it and find new things to think about despite already knowing the text very well.

For anyone who hasn’t read the novel it is set in the Hudson Bay area of Canada in 1867 and tells the story of the search for Francis Ross, a seventeen year old who may or may not have been involved in the murder of a French trapper, Laurent Jammet.  Several parties are involved in the search:  the Hudson Bay Company sends its representatives, his mother sets out with the help of William Parker, an Indian tracker and Thomas Sturrock, a retired journalist, who is actually more interested in a bone tablet that he had hoped to persuade Jammet to sell to him, shows an interest as well.

Inevitably, there was discussion of how well Penney had depicted the harsh Canadian winter landscape, given that she had never visited the country, but most of our conversation focused on the linked issues of characters coming to know themselves better and the wider question of how our perceptions dictate the way in which we react to the world around us and the people in it.

The first time I read this novel I was struck by the images of someone’s vision coming into focus.  The most literal of these surfaces early on in relation to Donald Moody, a naive young man who has made the journey from Scotland to join the Hudson Bay Company.

Shortly after he emerged from the bright fog of childhood, Donald had to acknowledge that he had difficulty seeing objects at any distance…he stopped hailing people…as he had no idea who they were.  He developed a reputation for coldness.  He confided his unease to his mother and was provided with a pair of uncomfortable wire-framed spectacles.  This was the first miracle of his life – the way the spectacles brought him back to the world.

There are, however, much more subtle explorations of the notion that our understanding of and relationship to the people and the world around us is dependent on the way in which we see.  Mrs Ross ponders on this in respect of the landscape that surrounds their small settlement.

Sometimes you find yourselves 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 immeasurable depth, or something else altogether.

And then she expands on that thought to include her husband.

And sometimes you find yourself looking at your husband and wondering: is he the straightforward man you think you know – provider, friend, teller of poor jokes that nonetheless make you smile – or does he too have depths that you have never seen?  What might he not be capable of?

One of the questions that haunts the more thoughtful characters in this novel is how well they may or may not know the people around them, especially those that society has told then they should or should not be able to put their faith in.  Two members of our group have had experience of living in countries colonised under British rule and they were shocked by what they learnt of the underhand dealings of the Government backed institutions in Canada.  As they said, they had been brought up to think that such ventures as the Hudson Bay Company and the East India Company were the basis on which good governance was built and while they were aware of the damage done on the Indian subcontinent by the powers-that-be they had still retained their belief in the Canadian fur trading enterprise.

In the wilderness that Mrs Ross and Donald find themselves traversing they have to put their faith in the very people they have been taught to suspect, the native Canadian Indians.  Parker and Jacob see the land in a completely different way to that of the incomers.  Comparing his understanding of the wilderness which has come to him via the written word to the way in which Jacob comprehends the world he has grown up in

Donald has a suspicion that the book-learnt knowledge he imparts to Jacob is not really his to give; he just happens to know how to tap into it, whereas when Jacob tells him something, he seems to own it entirely, as if it comes from inside himself.

The question of the importance society attaches to the written word is one that is raised in this novel but not thoroughly explored.  I was sorry about that because I think it is an interesting aspect of the manner in which we in the West judge indigenous peoples.  We have come to value the ability to record our thoughts and actions through the written word to such an extent that we question the sophistication of those groups who have not seen the need to develop such a system.  As someone said, one of the first reasons for developing writing was to make sure that the people you were trading with weren’t swindling you.  Perhaps, where there is more trust there is no need to develop such a fail-safe.

Our discussion ranged over many other areas.  I will just raise one.  As well as winning the Costa Award, The Tenderness of Wolves was also named Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year.  Several of us (crime fiction readers all) questioned whether or not that was appropriate.  Yes, the book begins with a murder and the action is driven by a quest to discover ‘whodunit’, but does that automatically make  it a crime novel?  I’m not certain where I stand on this.  I don’t find the crime the important part of the book.  I am much more concerned with the journeys of self-discovery that many of the characters are making.  On the other hand, I don’t want to imply that crime fiction isn’t capable of exploring issues of great social and ethical import.  Indeed, at its best, crime fiction is a prime literary means of exposing the problems of society to public view.  I’m going to have to do some more thinking about this and perhaps come back to it in a later post.  In the meantime, what do you think about the question?

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30 thoughts on “Summer School Book One: The Tenderness of Wolves ~ Stef Penney

  1. I haven’t read this novel though toyed with the idea of it. The themes you discuss certainly appeal.
    I think there is some snobbery about genres from sone quarters isn’t there remember the furore when a “western” was long listed for the Booker? As you say simply having a murder in the story doesn’t make it a crime novel really, but then there are novels that cross boundaries. Some crime novels are very literary and focus on charcters abd their experiences around the crime rather on just the solving of the crime. However if the crime in whatever aspect isn’t central to the novel then how can it really be a crime novel. Interesting question.

    1. I would never want to denigrate the crime novel if only because I read so many of them:-) But this seems simply not to come into the same category. I think it’s a book you would enjoy, Ali. Do you want my copy? I can bring it with me on Friday.

  2. I started this book thinking it was a crime novel, or mystery, but didn’t find that to be the case (no pun intended!) as I read. As someone who has spent lots of time in the weather and types of terrain Penney describes, I either enjoyed her descriptions or was distracted by something that felt wrong. All in all, a good book, but not a crime novel to me.

    1. An interesting post. This has been on the TBR list for quite some time and you do make the book very intriguing. I remember that rather silly fuss about how the author had never visited Canada – I always thought that imagination was part of the novelist’s toolbox! I have never thought of the book as a crime novel and it seems more a historically based of personal exploration which sounds great!

  3. I think I’m going to have to recommend your chosen book to my Canadian friends. Do you happen to know if Stef Penney is related to the Louise Penney of crime novel fame, a Quebecer, I believe? How interesting if that were true!

  4. A very thoughtful post, Alex. I read this some time ago and remember the hoo-ha about Penney not having been to Canada. I seem to remember she was an agoraphobic, and anyway it’s fiction! As to your question, your paragraph reminded me of Gil Adamson’s The Outlander which won the International Association of Crime Writers Dashiell Hammett Prize. There’s a murder at the very beginning but, live Penney’s novel, the book is about much more than that. It isn’t so much whether it should have won the prize as the expectations that prize might raise in readers. It’s an interesting question.

    1. You’re the second person to mention the Adamson, Susan and this question of the expectations that the winning of a certain prize will raise. The same could be said of the expectations raised by a particular author. I’ve just finished the new Sarah Waters and I suspect that readers coming to that on the back of something like ‘Fingersmith’ may find that they haven’t quite got what they thought they were signing up for.

  5. I’ve heard such good thing about this book and have been mildly interested but you have made me actually want to read it. I think with the prospect of all the cold you mention in it, I have to find time to read it in the warmer months when I don’t have to step out my front door to experience a harsh (Minnesota) winter landscape.

  6. I’ve been skirting around this book for a long time and wondering if I should try it. The setting is about as far as it is possible to be from my part of the world, so I’m a bit intrigued by that. I do like accuracy in fiction, however, so I’m a little put off by the inauthentic landscape claims.

    I just borrowed The Outlander from the library after reading a post about it and the books do sound rather similar. I think of crime novels as being about solving crimes, so if there’s a ‘whodunnit’ element in a book then I’d say it fits my (simplistic!) definition of the genre. I’m not sure The Outlander falls into that category, though.

    1. I’ve only come across one suggestion of inaccuracy, Violet, most people seem to think she has it about right. I certainly wouldn’t shun the book on that account. In fact, this would meet your criteria for a crime novel because there is a search to find out who is the killer but it still doesn’t justify the label for me.

  7. I’ve read this twice and loved it both times. I agree about the crime element being a bit dubious and was similarly surprised recently to find The Outlander also described in the same way, as Violet says above. I would say to anyone who is wondering whether to give The Tenderness of Wolves a try — yes! go for it. It is a terrific novel.

  8. I wouldn’t have classed this as a crime novel either, the crime is simply a device to explore bigger questions as you discussed in your group read, just as it was in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. I didn’t read Tenderness with anything like the thoroughness you and your friends did so now I’m thinking it deserves a reread

  9. I hadn’t realised she’d never been to Canada – in fact, when I read it when it first came out, I think I thought she was Canadian. I didn’t really think of it as a crime novel – more lit-fic, like Hannah Kent’s ‘Burial Rites’ more recently. Or indeed ‘The Luminaries’. To me, crime is mostly when the investigation takes centre stage, I think, though obviously there will always be exceptions – in fact, maybe they should be called ‘investigation novels’ since so much lit-fic contains a crime somewhere along the way…

  10. What a great review! I particularly like your analysis the landscape parts. I have heard of writers who haven’t traveled to the places they write about. I suppose it’s a matter of reserch and imagination.
    I’ve never heard of this novel, but it is available in the U.S.
    And now off to read the comments! I’m sure someone has said what I’ve said, so I like to comment before reading them!

  11. This is one I definitely must read – it keeps appearing on my tbr list and then getting pushed off somehow. But I will certainly get to it. I think of it as a literary novel borrowing crime tropes in an interesting way.

    1. That’s a nice way of putting it, Litlove. And interesting in respect of a Canadian crime writer I’ve just been reading who I think is desperately (although possibly subconsciously) trying to do the same thing. She has moved beyond needing a murder to motivate her explorations of human nature but I suspect feels the need to include one because it is what her readers will expect. As a consequence the crimes in her last two novels have felt like add ons. Such a shame.

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