§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: The Tenderness of Wolves

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Tenderness of Wolves

My interest in this novel was heighted by two outside pieces of information: that the author was a screenwriter and that she had never been to the area north of Georgian Bay where the novel is set (and had been criticized for it). The first interested me because the novel is “cinematic” and written in scenes—and moves forward at a compelling pace; the second, because I’ve been decrying the place that research has assumed in novel writing these days and completely accept the author’s counter that this is, after all, a work of the imagination. The setting is tangible and immediate; whether it is “real” doesn’t matter as far as I can tell.

The Tenderness of Wolves is essentially a mystery which takes place 1860s Ontario, on Georgian Bay, a large bay to the northeast of Lake Huron. The action takes place in Caulfield on Dove River, a small settlement with no buildings over 13 years old, in a Norwegian religious colony and on a trading post of the Hudson Bay Company—and in the snow-covered plains and forests lying between. A trader and ex-Company man is murdered in his house on the edge of Dove River and found by a neighboring farmer’s wife. The plot is complex with many characters and basically follows the actions of those who want to find out who murdered Laurent Jammet. The only first person voice is that of Mrs. Ross, who woman who discovers the body and whose son is suspected of the murder, but most of the novel it not first person narration.

The structure is interesting. There are four main sections, corresponding to the different settings and to the stages in the investigation. Within each section are subsections, using focusing on different characters. Mrs. Ross actually narrates the sections where she’s the main focus, but you see her from the outside when she appears in the other sections. The other sections use a sort of Jamesian center of consciousness, with the narrator getting into the head of another character. One can easily see the influence of film.

It’s a complex plot with lots of characters and no real interest in the man who was killed except that the wrong persons are being accused. I found this a page turner until maybe two-thirds of the way through where it suddenly occurred to me I didn’t really care about any of the characters. Nor did I care who killed the trapper since it was clear it wasn’t the two sympathetic characters who were accused. Nor were they in any real danger of punishment for a crime they didn't commit.

The role of “The Company” that controlled the fur trade in British North America, in the novel and in the community, is interesting and Company men are generally bad guys, except Moody who “figures it out” during the course of the novel. But that theme is generally ancillary and not really developed. (I was astounded when I first went shopping in Calgary years ago to find the main department store, referred to by initiates as “the Bay”, was that same company which Wikipedia describes as the “oldest commercial corporation in North America”.

My assessment of this novel: the structure is near perfect, the setting is powerful, the plot is OK, and the characters are skillfully imagined but ultimately bloodless. Mrs. Ross, for example, narrates bits of her past in an insane asylum where she evidently was the favorite of a nutty doctor (made me think of the main character in Atwood’s Alias Grace) but the background generates questions that are never answered. That’s true with other characters as well. Perhaps the difference is that the characterization in film, which of necessity relies on snippets, isn’t really enough for a really effective novel.


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