The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

For a while I thought I had already read this book but then I realized I was confusing it with the History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund.

Don’t make my mistake and miss out on this brilliant read!

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The story is set in a frontier town in Canada around the turn of the 20th century. A small community struggles to establish itself in the wild landscape. Government, law and order are effectively provided by the ‘Company’, the trading outfit which employs local people and facilitates the economic success of the settlement by buying the things the wilderness provides - lumber and pelts. The company also serves as the intermediary between settlers and the indigenous people. The Company is powerful, a force to be reckoned with.

So it is that when a local tracker is found murdered in his cabin, his throat cut and his scalp removed, the Company men are sent to investigate. One of these, a recent arrival to the colony - a young man very inexperienced but keen to make a good impression - provides one of the novel’s primary eye-views on the events which unfold. The other is a woman, a neighbour to the murdered man, with a troubled history. The two find themselves on opposite sides when the disappearance of the woman’s teenage son puts him in the frame for the murder.

The story is about the imposition of order onto chaos, the over-layering of wilderness by civilization.

It is an awkward fit, a daily struggle to beat back the untamed landscape, wrest crops from the resistant earth and withstand the punishing climate. But there is another source of savagery - equally potent but much less obvious; the feral impulse of human nature, its cowardice, its pride, its avarice and insecurity. The little settlement at Cauldfield encapsulates this perfectly; the muddy would-be streets of the little town, the make-shift, ramshackle buildings pretending to be elegant residences or idyllic cabins.  Mores of social etiquette, moral standards and niceties of dress are all clung to while the forest beyond is alive with savagery and threatens to impinge. The country - unmapped and unpredictable - stretches out on every side of the vulnerable little pocket of habitations for untold miles of desolate wilderness. The climate is an enemy, fly-blown and stultifying in summer, an iron-fist of all-pervading cold of in winter. Within this desolation social calls are made, tea is taken and bonnets trimmed.  It seems specious and ridiculous but on such refinements civilization is prevented from reverting to savagery. Social cohesion balances on a knife edge as this small group of families struggle to get along. Survival absolutely depends on them being able to rely on one another. At the same time they are a disparate group, coming from a variety of different countries and cultures. There is competition, envy, gossip and hubris. I thought Stef Penney brought this aspect of her book off very well indeed.

Equally successful was her rendition on the wilderness; the impenetrable forest, the sucking bogs, the plethora of things that sting and bite. She describes blizzards and storms with exceptional brilliancy - I felt the madness of the weather like a demented poltergeist tearing at the flimsy covering of the bivouac. The cold and wet oozed from the pages and made my fingers turn white.

The search for the young man and the murderer takes the Company man and the desperate woman through the trackless forest and across the swampy waste beyond to a small Calvinist community. Here the strictures of religion add to the already almost insupportable winter conditions and the suffocation of being enclosed in a small community. From there the trail leads to an outpost of the Company itself and the young investigator finds that when the Company extends a finger of blame, three more point back at the accuser.

The title is a clever prompt to the reader. There are wolves in the book - they lurk in the forest and prowl at night, adding to the peril of the difficult terrain and the terrors of the storms. They also parade the muddy streets of Caulfield, gossip in the store and masquerade as figures of authority.  The comparison between the two packs makes for an interesting counterpoint.