Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ordinary Wolves: Book Review

Ordinary Wolves, by Seth Kantner, is quite simply the best piece of fiction I've read for a long time. It combines many of the things that I like in a book: a coming of age story, insights across a cultural chasm of very different values and perceptions, elegant descriptions of landscape and animals and how people use them, a personal quest for meaning, and a historical perspective. And the writing! It's graphic, it's beautiful, it seems to be very accurate (though I've never been to Alaska, more knowledgeable reviewers attest to this), and sometimes it's brutal.

Ordinary Wolves is the story of Cutuk, who grows up with his brother, sister, and father in a sod igloo far in the north of Alaska. Cutuk is white, and longs to look like the IƱupiat (Eskimo) villagers in the nearby village, with their beautiful nylon jackets, skill at basketball, and dark frostbitten marks. Kantner writes inflinchingly about how it feels to be an outsider, about being someone who looks different from the other kids, who gets pounded on sometimes. I can't help wondering how much of this is autobiographical, as I'm sure many readers do, since Kantner's biography says he grew up in Kotzebue, Alaska. At any rate, it's a good look at everyday prejudice and racism.

Since it is hard to describe this book without sounding trite (and the lack of hand-me-down cliches was something I really enjoyed in it), let me just provide a few passages to encourage you to read it for yourself:

On the seasons changing:

Melting-out frogs rattled the ponds and awakening mosquitoes hummed at our ears. Sweet spring was dead and the hot boring summer here, an eternity trapped along the river under clouds of mosquitoes like a writhing skin, black and stinging. Me, painting rancid yellow seal oil on the dogs' faces and Figment's testicles, trying in vain to keep the mosquitoes from taking away their skin. Tall green grass and leafy trees. Fishing for dog food. Cutting fish, drying fish, cooking fish. Weeks and weeks of eating fish. The grebe could laugh in his read throat; he loved fish and had long forgotten if he'd ever watched a sister fly away. (p. 93...Figment is a sled dog whose balls were frozen the previous winter).

On life in a one room house:

In the kitchen we heard tiny frantic hopping. The mouse that had been doing nightly turd dances on our bread had plopped into a mason jar. We grinned, thankful for the interruption. We peered down opposite sides into the glass at the furry face. (p. 128-9. Since we've had some problems with deer mice in our basement pantry this winter, I particularly loved the descriptive "nightly turd dances on our bread").

On city life and some cultural differences:

I sat and finished the pizza. Pizza Hut. I'd seen it advertised on the Wolfgloves' TV. Eating made me happy and I thought of Janet. When Janet fed me tiktaaliq livers she said she was proud of me. Abe hadn't taught pride. Pride had to do with country music, sports, joining the military and getting dead for some devious president. Pride was cousin to bragging, and required a support group. Nothing we needed or had. Nothing for something.

Iris would have something to say, something like "Absence makes the heart swallow your marbles." (p. 157: tiktaaliq = mudshark, according to the glossary in the front of the book, which you need to consult frequently).

Iris's mixed metaphors add a nice bit of relief to an occasionally dark story, which mixes culture shock, drinking Lysol, violence, and suicide with its accounts of the behavior of wolves, porcupines, Natives, Outsiders, big game hunting dentists, "Unwasters" and "Everything Wanters" and "Native Worshippers".

Note Amazon's "statistically improbable phrases" (which I'm becoming curiously addicted to) for this book: bearskin couch, baby porcupine, cannibal pot, snow hook, caribou trails, caribou hairs, tat time, pilot crackers, ice pans, gut pile, tat one, barrel stove, dead wolves, caribou skin, ski plane, mouse turds, dog yard, caribou hide, fish racks, wolf tracks.

When reading about this book (hoping for more by Kantner), I found his photography website, which adds a nice photo finish to the book: Kapvik Photography.

I checked Ordinary Wolves out of the library, but I'm going to give it my highest praise, which is buying it (in hardcover, no less) as a gift for a family member. Now I just need to decide who the lucky recipient will be. I might even have to buy a couple copies and keep one for myself.


Sandy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sandy said...

oops - messed that comment up. Here it is:

A lot of reviewers like comparing Kantner to Jack London, but the author I first thought about was Gary Paulsen. His Winterdance was also gripping (and a bit less disturbing for dog lovers).

This was also an extremely interesting counterpart to Ada Blackjack. Those poor guys just didn't have the fat intestines and fresh raw meat that Kantner describes so engagingly. There is also a "lost in the wilds" bit in Ordinary Wolves - people just disappear in the Arctic.

Anonymous said...

Seth wrote this book about everyone and no one. It is fact and fiction, fantasy and reality. Seth is quite the poet with words isn't he. We like to tease him about when he will write another book. This one took him forever.

Crotch Spit resident.

Jeane said...

I stumbled across this book at a thrift store a few months ago, and what a find! It is one of the best books I have read in a long time. I loved the language and descriptions, and the story. (and I'm a fan of Jack London, too)