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for people who care about the West

An honest take on a tough land

 

In his debut novel, Ordinary Wolves, Seth Kantner has woven a world where hunger, death and beauty go hand-in-hand. The book is set almost entirely on Kantner’s native Alaskan tundra, but don’t expect naturalist hyperbole. There are no splendid sweeping landscapes, big animals are either food or a threat, and cold is a given.

Consider an early description of the Arctic night, narrated by his semi-autobiographical hero, Cutuk Hawcly: "The walls of blackness grew and leaned close over my head and joined. An icy east breeze thinned the smoke. The night cold was a monster now, merciless, pinching my face with pliers, sneaking fingers under my parka."

But Cutuk knows no other world. His taciturn artist father whisked his family away from the "everything-wanters" of his native Chicago further back than Cutuk’s memory reaches. In Alaska, they’ve carved out a spartan life in an igloo, a day from the nearest village.

As the story crunches through the realities of remote northern life — tips on skinning and cooking northern wildlife abound — Cutuk falls victim to teen angst. Clad in traditional mukluk boots, he’s desperately unhip compared to the local Eskimo teens, who eat canned soup and wear jeans.

He makes social inroads, joining in beer-soaked Lysol-huffing parties and scoring his first wolf kill. But it leaves him empty inside, perhaps because his coming of age is paralleled by the unrelenting creep of industrial society into his icy home. "Snowgos" overtake sled dogs, and his friends and siblings heed the call of the city, drifting south to Anchorage. Cutuk joins them, but is soon dreaming of home, where the snow is never black with soot.

Cutuk’s lost innocence carries the book forward, but the strength of Kantner’s novel is his unvarnished take on life and the people of a tough land. This is an authentic tale from one of the last wild and irony-free American places, where wolf-hunters and environmentalists not only get along, but often share the same skin.