Stef Penney's mesmerizing debut novel, winner of Britain's Costa Book of the Year Award (formerly the Whitbread Award), entertains on several levels. The Tenderness of Wolves is in part a murder mystery, opening with the brutal killing of a French-Canadian trapper near Dove River, a small settlement in Canada's northern territory. It's also a historical family saga, focusing on Mrs. Ross, who discovers the murdered trapper, and who came to this remote part of Canada with her husband Angus from Scotland as part of the mid-19th-century Highland Clearances. They were two of countless immigrants who fanned out from the landing stops at Halifax and Montreal like the tributaries of a river, and disappeared, every one, into the wilderness. Mrs. Ross and Angus lost a baby daughter; they later adopted Francis, an Irish orphan, who is now 17 and as much a stranger as ever to his parents. His mother is worried, for Francis has been gone since the day of the murder. Constantly encompassing the novel's multilayered plot is the landscape itself vast and unpopulated, with dangerously frigid temperatures and endless stretches of snow and ice where first Mrs. Ross and a half-breed tracker, then two Hudson Bay Company men, set off to find Francis and the murderer, assuming they're not one and the same.
Penney is a Scottish screenwriter who has drawn this landscape so realistically that the reader feels he is accompanying her stoic characters despite the fact that she has never traveled to Canada herself. She immersed herself in research at the British Library, and has sprinkled her captivating debut with such diverse characters as two young sisters who disappeared 15 years earlier; the searcher employed by their parents who is now obsessed with discovering evidence of a written Native language; and various Hudson Bay Company hangers-on, debilitated by drugs and drink as trapping profits have dwindled. Penney is at work on her second book. This one set in is Britain, and sure to be eagerly awaited by readers of this haunting melange of mystery, history and adventure.