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?