Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Canada from the outside

I thought I would handle my next two books together since I know that one of the authors has never visited Canada, and I rather doubt whether the other did. Stef Penney researched her book, set in 1867, in the British Library – a pretty good place to choose, since it has extensive holdings on Canada. Stella Gibbons wrote Fort of the Bear in the 50s, though it is set soon after the First World War. So we have two books by British authors, both with period settings, about the pioneer experience in the Canadian wilderness. A warning here, I am going to discuss both books in some detail, so there will be plot spoilers from the outset; please don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens. The Gibbons book will be the subject of my next post.

There was much to enjoy in The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney, though I was conscious throughout of looking for inaccuracies. I suspect that much of the detail has come from those remarkable women, Catharine Parr Traill and Susannah Moodie, although since, disgracefully, I have read neither except in extract, I can’t be sure. The plot is roughly as follows: a man is murdered and, immediately afterwards, a young man goes missing. His mother, Mrs Ross, discovers the dead man and, after some delay while investigations get underway, sets out to look for her son. The investigators McKinley, the factor from Fort Edgar, his assistant Donald Moody, and the “half-breed”, Jacob, are men from the Hudson’s Bay Company (in this, I assume Penney is correct; there was no police force in Canada at the time and the HBC might reasonably be called in to investigate the death of a trapper, although the dead man, Laurent Jammet, is not one of their employees, but a free trapper.) As we learn about the dead man and his circumstances other characters begin to emerge: Mr Knox, the local magistrate, and his family who have already been visited by tragedy when, years earlier, his nieces set out for a walk and never return. Sturrock, a tracker employed to find the missing girls arrives in the village, looking for a bone artefact that had been in Jammet’s possession.

While I found the unfolding of two separate threads of romance between characters appealing and sympathetically written, I began to find a number of problems with the book. The first was the multiplicity of voices. While only one, Mrs Ross, speaks directly to us, we find suddenly find ourselves with privileged insight into the mind and thoughts of others. While I am happy with books from multiple viewpoints, I found it clumsy in this instance, perhaps even more so because the entire book is told in the narrative present. Why is Mrs Ross’s story told directly? We become aware that all of the characters seem to feel degrees of alienation, and perhaps in many instances this is what brought them to Canada. We are also told a little of Mrs Ross’s history: she has been a mental patient in an asylum in Scotland and, in fact, seems only to have left to marry and emigrate. Why? This is hardly a typical experience and it is hard to see what it contributes to the story beyond making her mysterious. Does it make her narration unreliable, even though hers is the only direct voice? Why did Angus Ross subsequently – and inexplicably to her – reject his wife? Mrs Ross herself seems to be aware of the precariousness of her son’s situation as a murder suspect, so that she sets out to follow him (to what end, exactly, is unclear, and she admits herself that she has delayed out of fear before leaving); however, despite the fact that she is forced to admit Francis’ sexuality to herself, she voices no firm fears on that account, yet homosexuality was a capital offence in Canada at the time.

The artefact which exercises Sturrock’s concern is a similar problem. A minor quibble is that we are told he took it to “museums in Toronto and Chicago”, but the Royal Ontario Museum didn’t open until 1912. What concerns me more is the suggestion that Sturrock is interested in the piece of bone because it might contain evidence of Native writing, and possibly of treaties. I don’t believe that such an item would have been accorded much importance even by someone whose thinking was well ahead of its time. Treaties with the First Nations weren’t taken terribly seriously by the British, then or more recently. The “Indian” Kahon’wes drifts into the story and out again. The bone tablet is lost. It wasn’t why Jammet was killed anyway. He was killed for the furs. Why? His murderers already knew where they were. A missing girl is found. What happened to her sister? We will never know.

As I said at the outset, I enjoyed the book, despite loose ends and inconsistencies. What I have realised, in the course of writing about it, is that I am unlikely to re-read it, or to recommend it wholeheartedly. I still think it entirely possible to base a book entirely on research in libraries, but you need to steep yourself in the subject over a long period to pull it off convincingly.

I can’t find much evidence that The Tenderness of Wolves is being read in Canada. Just as well, really.


  1. I'm sorry that you had problems with this as although I understand some of your reservations, I thought it was one of the most beautifully written books I'd ever read and its exploration of the many different meanings of the concept of blindness really well handled. Still, it would be a poorer world if we all enjoyed the same literature. I haven't read the Gibbon, I must look out for it.

  2. I worried that I was being unduly harsh, because I genuinely did enjoy it. The trouble was that, the more I thought about it, the more aware I was of shortcomings and the more they bothered me. I do think a good editor would have helped.

    Reminds me rather of the time I gave The English Patient, which I loved, to my husband to read. After the first few pages he threw it down in disgust and said it was dreadful and he'd have expected better of Women's Own! Serious falling out ensued.

  3. I definitely don't do falling out over books. If we all liked the same thing then there would be a serious shortage of books to read and no chance of falling over something completely unexpected and wonderful.

  4. I enjoyed your review which I found when reading Tenderness of Wolves. There were so many themes in the book: man against nature, rural life, infidelity, homosexuality, murder mystery, history. I liked it very much, but two things did bother me while reading: sometimes I could not figure out who was "speaking" during sections of dialogue (who said that???). Also, at the beginning of some chapters, I had to read a couple paragraphs to figure out where we were in the story. Thanks for your blog, I'll be browsing through it some more.

  5. I think I read the book too quickly-so who do you think killed Jammet? Stewart admits to it but they describe the killer as 'long greasy dark haired' which makes me think it is Parker.
    Also, the section where Maria is in the bar seems to be set up as a important point in the book, but nothing comes of it. I would add that to your list above.