Summary and book reviews of The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

The Tenderness of Wolves

A Novel

by Stef Penney

The Tenderness of Wolves
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2007, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2008, 384 pages

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Book Summary

A brilliant and breathtaking debut that captivated readers and garnered critical acclaim in the United Kingdom, The Tenderness of Wolves was long-listed for the Orange Prize in fiction and won the Costa Award (formerly Whitbread) Book of the Year.

The year is 1867. Winter has just tightened its grip on Dove River, a tiny isolated settlement in the Northern Territory, when a man is brutally murdered. Laurent Jammett had been a voyageur for the Hudson Bay Company before an accident lamed him four years earlier. The same accident afforded him the little parcel of land in Dove River, land that the locals called unlucky due to the untimely death of the previous owner.

A local woman, Mrs. Ross, stumbles upon the crime scene and sees the tracks leading from the dead man's cabin north toward the forest and the tundra beyond. It is Mrs. Ross's knock on the door of the largest house in Caulfield that launches the investigation. Within hours she will regret that knock with a mother's love -- for soon she makes another discovery: her seventeen-year-old son Francis has disappeared and is now considered a prime suspect.

In the wake of such violence, people are drawn to the crime and to the township -- Andrew Knox, Dove River's elder statesman; Thomas Sturrock, a wily American itinerant trader; Donald Moody, the clumsy young Company representative; William Parker, a half-breed Native American and trapper who was briefly detained for Jammett's murder before becoming Mrs. Ross's guide. But the question remains: do these men want to solve the crime or exploit it?

One by one, the searchers set out from Dove River following the tracks across a desolate landscape -- home to only wild animals, madmen, and fugitives -- variously seeking a murderer, a son, two sisters missing for seventeen years, and a forgotten Native American culture before the snows settle and cover the tracks of the past for good.

In an astonishingly assured debut, Stef Penney deftly weaves adventure, suspense, revelation, and humor into an exhilarating thriller; a panoramic historical romance; a gripping murder mystery; and, ultimately, with the sheer scope and quality of her storytelling, an epic for the ages.

Disappearance

The last time I saw Laurent Jammet, he was in Scott's store with a dead wolf over his shoulder. I had gone to get needles, and he had come in for the bounty. Scott insisted on the whole carcass, having once been bamboozled by a Yankee who brought in a pair of ears one day and claimed his bounty, then some time later brought in the paws for another dollar, and finally the tail. It was winter and the parts looked fairly fresh, but the con became common knowledge, to Scott's disgust. So the wolf's face was the first thing I saw when I walked in. The tongue lolled out of the mouth, which was pulled back in a grimace. I flinched, despite myself. Scott yelled and Jammet apologized profusely; it was impossible to be angry with him, what with his charm and his limp. The carcass was removed out back somewhere, and as I was browsing, they began to argue about the moth-eaten pelt that hangs over the door. I think Jammet suggested jokingly that Scott replace it with a new one. ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Discussion Points

  1. The novel is divided into four parts: Disappearance, The Fields of Heaven, The Winter Partners, and The Sickness of Long Thinking. Characterize each of these parts by what occurs within them and discuss why you think the author chose this format.
  2. The people of Dove River are mostly settlers from foreign countries who have a very particular worldview rooted in their own struggle for survival. In what ways are the children in this book reflections of their parents? In what ways have they broken from their parents' examples? Does this lead to joy or sorrow? Give examples.
  3. Living so rustically in such a closed society has given rise to a very particular set of rules in Dove River, such as the ...

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    Costa Book Awards
    2006

  • award image

    Costa Book Awards
    2006

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Like The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Tenderness of Wolves is a classic "western" in which the raw and rugged people are dwarfed by their surroundings as they find their way towards, or away from, hard-won redemption.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews

The Times (London)

An original and readable mixture of mystery and history, with a good dollop of old-fashioned adventure.

The Guardian (UK)

In suitable Jack London style for a setting in Canada's snowy wastes, wolves wander in and out of this suspenseful 19th-century epic, offering a leitmotif of constant unease. So begins what masquerades as a traditional murder quiz but quickly broadens out to encompass other lines of inquiry -- the mystery of two long-missing young sisters, the quest for a forgotten native American culture, the twists and turns of an unusual love story. Stef Penney is from Edinburgh and claims never to have visited Canada -- impressive, then, that the land of her imagination convinces.

The Spectator

The novel has a large canvas and . . . the story twists and turns. The Tenderness of Wolves is an entertaining and well-written adventure thriller.

The Sunday Telegraph (London)

A fascinating, suspense-filled adventure, a refreshing contrast to the conventional murder mystery.

The Daily Telegraph (Australia)

Penney's descriptions of the harsh landscape and the deprivation of living there are vivid and excellent.

The Globe and Mail (Canada)

An entertaining, well-constructed mystery . . . sexy, suspenseful, densely plotted storytelling . . . a novel with far greater ambitions than your average thriller, combining as it does the themes of Conrad's Heart of Darkness with Atwood's Survival, and lashing them to a story that morphs Ian Rankin with The Mad Trapper of Rat River.

Reader Reviews

Gillian McManus

An epic story
Subtle yet honest portrayal character, nuanced emotion and the protagonist, Mrs Ross, wolf mother. I wondered about the title for a long time until I realised that that bitter and hungry country echoed with their presence. An epic that appealed to ...   Read More

Barbara

A Very Engaging Read
Each character in this book, no matter how briefly they appeared, was well developed and multi-dimensional. The author is very skilled in providing specific insights into a character to develop the internal person, while leaving each character enough...   Read More

Angie

A truly good book
It is a supreme pleasure in life to come across a truly good book that captivates you completely. The Tenderness of Wolves is one of them. The storyline and characters are compelling and full of depth. It is easy to feel compassion and interest ...   Read More

Mercedes

A debut novel that is not to be missed
This has it all in just under 400 pages. Genre-bending is a popular descriptor these days but it does not do this novel justice. There is adventure, murder, a love story, a richly described historical setting and all in a first novel. The narrative ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

One plot thread of The Tenderness of Wolves involves an artifact that may or may not have belonged to the Five Nations.

The Five Nations, collectively known to themselves as the Haudenosaunee (People of the Long House), but better known today by the derogatory term given to them by white settlers, Iroquois meaning rattlesnake, are a group of Native American tribes consisting of the Seneca (People of the Great Hill), Cayuga (People of the Great Swamp), Onondaga (People of the Hills), ...

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