By Jennifer Reese
Updated July 06, 2007 04:00 AM

In The Tenderness of Wolves, the bloodied corpse of a French trader is discovered in an isolated 19th-century Canadian town on the same day that a troubled local teenager, Francis Ross, goes missing. In her intense and serpentine first novel, Stef Penney rides herd on the broad cast of characters with a stake in the mystery, including Francis’ unhappy middle-aged mother, who heads off to find him; the enigmatic half-Indian trapper with whom she strikes up an unlikely friendship; a restless immigrant widow living in a strict religious colony; an amateur archaeologist searching for a lost Native American language; and the drug-addicted administrator of a remote trading post. Their paths converge in the snowy northern outback as a handful of questions — sexual, criminal, interpersonal, historic — are painstakingly unraveled. There’s an awful lot going on here, and Wolves sometimes sags under its overwhelming narrative freight. Nonetheless, it’s a gripping, elegantly written, and uncommonly powerful debut. B+