What is it with wolves?

Two novels have recently been published with wolf in the title, and another one about six years ago caught my attention. That one, which won the Costa Book of the Year in 2006 was remarkable for several reasons. Stef Penney‘s first novel was an accomplished story set in Canada in 1867. The story begins with a death and its narrative is the trajectory of a search for the truth, the truth about that death and also about several earlier mysteries.

Interestingly, though very different, another first novel by Cecelia Ekbäck, published this year also starts with a death and deals with the search for the truth behind that death and several earlier mysteries. The two books could not be more different.

scan0002Stef Panney‘s The Tenderness of Wolves has as its background a winter wilderness, vast, difficult and partially unknown. European settlers have only recently arrived and trading stations are far apart and basic, security is minimal and supplied largely by militia, who are based nearer the rudimentary towns. Winter is a prolonged, snow-bound season, the terrain unforgiving. The principal trade is in furs for alcohol and tobacco and this narrative involves the rivalry between the two main trading ventures which were the French traders who had been in Canada since the 1600s (sent there primarily as missionaries by Cardinal Richelieu at the time of Louis XIII) and the Hudson Bay Company set up in competition by the British about seventy years later. Beaver skin was the main pelt, but other furs which were rarer and more highly prized included black and silver fox, the latter was worth its weight in gold.

The dead man, a trapper, had a close and affectionate friendship with the young son of a local craftsman in a small settlement called Dove River.  The young man disappears shortly after the discovery of the dead man and his mother feels compelled to go in search of him. The story unfolds gradually, with chunks of information sliding slowly into place, like snow falling from trees…a whoosh followed by a sigh. There is a developing romance too, and it is a very accomplished, delicate, subtle epic. An astonishing debut, all the more astonishing in that Stef Penney had never been to any of the places she describes!

The book reminded me very much of another book about early settlement in Canada scan0003Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone (also set in the 1800s, also about a search for the truth).
Wolf Winter, on the other hand, was written by a woman who knew well what she was writing about, although she now lives in Canada. Cecelia Ekbäck was born in Sweden and her parents come from Lapland, where she often went to stay with her grandparents. Blackåsen Mountain, around which the narrative takes place is an imagined landscape, there is no such place – but it stands in for a wilderness full of harsh beauty, where a winter darkness holds sway for months at a time, and in summer there is, by contrast, virtually no night. When one talks of the “land of the midnight sun” one surely forgets that there is a corollary, a winter when the sun scarcely rises.

This novel also starts with a death: two little girls – Fredericka and Dorotea find a dead man in a glade up on the mountainside when they are taking the goats up for feeding. They are new to the area, having moved with their parents, Maija and Paavo into a property that had belonged to their great-uncle. Their homestead is isolated, there are few other settlers around them all at some distance and all of them at some distance from the main town.

The date is 1717, Sweden has been at war pretty much continually for 150 years, The Great Northern War included combatants from Denmark, Poland, Saxony, Hanover, Prussia and Russia, taxes and manpower had depleted the resources of many places and often, to avoid being called up to serve in the military, families moved ever further north.

Without exception, all the characters in this small group had secrets. The local priest, the verger, the bishop, the dead man and all the families kept their own counsel, so the fact that Maija insisted first that the dead man had been murdered not killed by a wild beast, was unwelcome news; that she went further and determined to find out why he had been killed was another alienating factor. More comfortable with the idea that the man had been killed by the Lapps who came infrequently into the area during the winter when they brought the reindeer down for the lower pastures, it was deeply troubling that Maija would not accept this and leave the matter to rest.

There is great subtlety, intrigue and mystery in the book. A strong vein of religion and shamanism, ancient rites and folk lore battling with Christianity for supremacy; there are unfathomable depths of sadness and horror and streaks of cruelty; hypocrisy and suspicion. The story is carried by three people – Frederika, a young girl slowly blossoming into womanhood, Maija, her mother who has secrets of her own and a husband who seems to all intents and purposes to be a weakling and Olav Arosander, the priest.

This is both profoundly moving and romantic, a lovely, enigmatic, suspenseful tale; full of wisdom and natural beauty.

The other new novel about wolves is called Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. I have to admit I haven’t read this yet, it lies in “the pile”. Set partly in The Lake District is tells of a rather recluse woman currently resident in Idaho with troubling relationships with her family and strong bonds with captives wolves, she dreams up a scheme for re-introducing them in to the Cumbrian wilderness. There is a political dimension to this novel, Scotland is now independent and it is reputed to be a compelling read. Expect to hear more on this later. Sarah Hall was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize with her second book The Electric Michelangelo in 2004, a strange and gripping story of a tattoo parlour set near Morecambe Bay. Her last novel How to paint a Dead Man was also listed for the Man Booker in 2009. Cumbria features in many of her novels, she grew up in Carlisle and I think now lives in North Carolina


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