Saturday, February 16, 2008

Stef Penney: The Tenderness of Wolves

I find myself wondering what the difference is between literary fiction, historical fiction, and a murder mystery. The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney seems to be all three. Two things we don’t see a lot of are tenderness and wolves.

The story takes place in the 1860’s in the Canadian wilderness, north of Lake Huron. That’s a historical period. The protagonist, Mrs. Ross, finds the body of a local trader who had obviously been murdered. We don’t know who did it, so we’ve got a murder mystery. But the back-story of all the characters is introduced in a very piecemeal, out of sequence sort of way. It seems like an English professor would like that, so it must be literary. Overall, I’d say that we spend more time developing characters and their relationships than in spinning out the plot line. So I guess literary wins out. I suppose I could also have taken a hint from the fact that the book won a British literary award.

The book is written in first person singular when our protagonist, Mrs. Ross, is around. For the other main characters, we get a traditional third person narrative.

The book has everything it needs for a good plot. Francis Ross, the protagonist’s son is missing and wanted for questioning. William Parker, a half-breed trapper has been detained as a suspect, but ends up helping guide Mrs. Ross through the wilderness in search of her son. Donald Moody, an inexperienced clerk from the Company (Hudson Bay?), is also trekking through the wilderness with another guide trying to find Francis Ross. And an American trader with an anthropologic interest in the case is involved with another group trying to recapture William Parker. Then throw in the story of two girls who were captured by Indians years earlier, a religious commune deep in the wilderness, a missing treasure in furs, and a cold Canadian winter, and you have the makings of a really complicated story.

The Tenderness of Wolves is well written. The characters are well developed. The story ultimately pulls all its pieces together in a logically coherent way. But it’s not a fun spinning of the tale. Maybe it has too many pieces to just tell the story front to back. Maybe I just wasn’t feeling very sophisticated when I read it.

But probably the book isn’t about the story. It’s about a mother’s unconditional love. It’s about a confused teenager. It’s about a young man trying to prove himself in a new world. It’s about an older man trying to recapture lost honors. And it’s about a man trying to do what’s right, and to right past wrongs. There’s a good story in here, but Penney seems to have had a lot more important things to say.

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