The New York Times
Ordinary Wolves: A Novelby Seth Kantner
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In the tradition of Jack London, Seth Kantner presents an Alaska far removed from majestic clichés of exotic travelogues and picture postcards. Kantner’s vivid and poetic prose lets readers experience Cutuk Hawcly’s life on the Alaskan plains through the character’s own words feeling the pliers pinch of cold and hunkering in an igloo in blinding blizzards. Always in Cutuk’s mind are his father Ab,; the legendary hunter Enuk Wolfglove, and the wolves all living out lives on the unforgiving tundra. Jeered and pummeled by native children because he is white, Cutuk becomes a marginal participant in village life, caught between cultures. After an accident for which he is responsible, he faces a decision that could radically change his life. Like his young hero, Seth Kantner grew up in a sod igloo in the Alaska, and his experiences of wearing mukluks before they were fashionable, eating boiled caribou pelvis, and communing with the native tribes add depth and power to this acclaimed narrative.
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ORDINARY WOLVESA NOVEL
By SETH KANTNER
MILKWEED EDITIONSCopyright © 2004 SETH KANTNER
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIN THE BAD MOUSE YEAR-two years after magazines claimed a white man hoofed on the moon-Enuk Wolfglove materialized one day in front of our house in the blowing snow and twilight of no-sun winter. His dog team vanished and reappeared in the storm. Abe stood suddenly at the window like a bear catching a scent. "Travelers!" He squeezed out his half-smoked cigarette, flicked it to the workbench, wiped ashy fingers on his sealskin overpants. We kids eyed the cigarette's arc-we could smoke it later, behind the drifts, pretend we were artists like him.
"Poke up the fire?" Abe grinned like an older brother, our best friend, no dad at all. "And hide the vanilla." His head and broad shoulders disappeared as he squirmed into his shedding caribou-calfskin parka. He banged the door to break the caribou-skin stripping loose and jumped into the storm.
Jerry pocketed the cigarette. He glanced up through his eyelashes. "I'll share," he mumbled. Iris and I paced the floorboards, excited about travelers. We were barefoot and red toed. It was getting dark, and stormy, or we'd all have dressed in parkas and hurried outside. Jerry lowered a log into the barrel stove. He got the second log stuck and had to wrench it back out, sparky and smoking. "Goddamn son of a biscuit!" he said, practicing with Abe absent. He was tall and ten-twice my age-and had the good black hair. Also, he remembered cities and cars and lawns, red apples on trees-if that stuff was true. Jerry left the draft open until flames licked the pipe red and smoke leaked out the cracks. He tracked down each spark, wet his finger, and drowned it. He wiped his finger on a log, peered at it, and wet it again. Abe was spanking-strict about fire. That, and no whining.
"It's Enuk Wolfglove!" Iris said. "Only one traveler!" Through the flapping Visqueen window we watched Abe and the man hunching against the wind, chaining the dogs in the willows near our team. Enuk lived west, downriver in Takunak village, but like wind he came off the land each time from a different direction. Iris squinted, myopically counting his dogs. Abe would be too generous, offering too much fish and caribou off our dogfood pile that needed to last until Breakup. Iris felt bad if our dogs got narrow and had to eat their shit. She was eight now, black hair too, and with blue eyes-but they were weak. She had gotten snowblind, the spring before last when she didn't wear her Army goggles on the sled back from the Dog Die Mountains. Someday, Abe meant to mailorder glasses.
I broke a chunk of thin ice off the inside of the window and sucked it. "How come they hitchin' 'em there?" The ice tasted like frozen breath and wet caribou hair.
Jerry peered over our shoulders. "You're talking Village English. Company isn't even off the ice." His voice was tight. People made him nervous. People made all of us nervous, except Iris. Our family lived out on the tundra. Abe had dug a pit, old Eskimo style, and built our igloo out of logs and poles, before I even grew a memory. Eskimos wouldn't live that way anymore, but for some reason we did. The single room was large, sixteen by sixteen, and buried to the eaves in the protective ground. In the back, over our beds, trees reached into the soil on the roof, and in the storms we heard their roots groaning, fighting for their lives out in the wind. Our walls and roof Abe insulated with blocks of pond sod. In the sod, mice and shrews rustled and fought and chewed and built their own homes, siphoning off warmth and mouthfuls of our food and winnowing it down to tiny black shits. Abe had escaped something, roads and rules possibly. Little things didn't bother him; Abe liked his meat dried, cooked, raw, or frozen. He didn't mind fly eggs on it-as long as the tiny maggots weren't moving.
Once we had a mom. She wasn't coming back. That's what Iris said she told Jerry the day she flew away. She had a twelve-string guitar and apparently liked music more than caribou and bears and a moss roof that leaked. She'd left us alone with none of those thousand warm things children with mothers don't count. Abe never talked about it. He never painted it. Her leaving was the back wall of my memory.
Iris scraped at the ice on the window with her fingernails inside her sleeve. Her bony elbows stuck out of her shirt. "They're chaining below the willows so the drifts won't bury his dogs." She flitted away to hang our parkas on pegs over the wood box, push mukluks and clothes tighter into the corners and under our bunks. Caribou hairs clung to all our clothes. She whisked hair and Abe's plane shavings and sawdust into dirt corners with a goose wing.
The north wind swept the open tundra and howled into the spruce on the bank where our sod home was buried in the permafrost. The skylight shuddered. Snow laced over the riverbank. The gray wool of moving snow hid the horizons. Overhead the frozen sky purpled with night, and above the wind and frantic branches clung watery stars. Out under the ice, the wide Kuguruk River flowed past the door, through the arctic part of Alaska that our mail-order schoolbooks called barren icy desert. That shamed me, that quick, throwaway description flung from the far rich East, printed in the black-and-white validation of a textbook. My protests only made Abe shrug.
The homemade Visqueen window shivered and whacked. The men chopped a frozen caribou for the dogs. The dogs ripped the skin off the meat and swallowed chunks. They guarded the skin, pinning it down with their claws. When the last bone and meat crystal was sniffed off the snow, they chewed the hair off the skin, ate the skin. Then they curled up to protect their faces and feet.
We heard the men trudging through the drift, up on the eave, down into the trench to the door. The snow squeaked as Abe shoveled, then pounded on the skin door. "Chop the ice along the bottom! Hear me?" Jerry scrambled for the hatchet. "Now get back!" Torn by wind and muffled by the skins, his voice came in mad. I hid behind the water barrel. Abe and Enuk surged in out of the swirling snow. Ovals of frozen skin and drifted-on ice whitened their faces. I stared, longing for frostbite, the scars of heroes. Abe pulled his hood back and his curly yellow hair sprang out; his turquoise eyes shone above his bearded face. "Windy."
"Alappaa tat wind." Enuk was a few inches shorter than Abe. His wide face was stiff, his goatee iced. The men grinned and shook snow off their parkas and whipped snow off their mukluks. They eased ice off their whiskers. Iris danced barefoot between them, smiling and scooping up snow to throw in the slop bucket. I wished I could move like her, light and smiling. Behind the water barrel I stood on the dirt and the damp mouse turds, excited at having company.
Enuk's gaze swung and pinned me down. "Hi Yellow-Hair! Getting big! How old?" His face was dark and cold-swollen.
Travelers all carried names for me, like the first-class mail. None were the ones I wanted. I inched out beside the blasting stove, my eyes down. "Five." It was hard to look at Enuk-or any traveler-in the eyes after seeing no people for weeks. It was hard to speak and not run and hide again. Enuk's frost-scarred face betrayed mysteries and romantic hard times that drew a five-year-old boy with swollen dreams. He was muscled in the forearms in the way of a skinned wolverine. He didn't eat most store-bought food, except Nabob boysenberry jam. When he was out hunting with his dog team and snowshoes he carried a can of jam. He'd chop it open and-after dried meat, or frozen meat, or cooked meat-around his campfire he'd suck on chips of frozen jam. He also carried his little moosehide pouch. Inside were secrets; once he'd let us hold gold nuggets, lumpy, the diameter of dimes. We handed them back and they disappeared in the folds of leather. The day I turned old I was going to be Enuk. Small discrepancies left footprints in my faith, such as the fact that he was Eskimo and I seemed to be staying naluagmiu. But years lined up ahead, promising time for a cure.
Our last human visitor had been Woodrow Washington, a month before. Woodrow had a mustache and one tooth on the bottom, one on top. They didn't line up. Not near. His closest worldly ties were with the bottle, and that left him narrow and shaky. Though he hunted like everyone, his concentration and shots tended to stray. When he showed up, Jerry always hid the vanilla. Sober, he was nice and extra polite. "Tat Feathers boy, he suicide." Woodrow had brought news and stayed only long enough for warmed-up breakfast coffee. "He use double-barrel, backa their outhouse. You got fifty dollar? I sure need, alright?" Abe gave him the money. Abe leaned on his workbench and rubbed his ears. Harry Feathers was-or had been-a shambling teenager with blinky eyes and acne. He talked to Abe when Abe was snacking our sled dogs in front of Feathers's post office. It seemed as if maybe nobody else listened to Harry.
Woodrow had been disappointing company. We had only what money was in the Hills Bros can, but I blamed him more for not spending the night. And not bringing our first class.
Jerry served boiled caribou pelvis, in the cannibal pot, and pilot crackers, salmon berries, qusrimmaq, and the margarine that travelers had left-without the coloring added. Abe didn't allow something for nothing; yellow dye was poison; the color of food was nothing. We all carried sharp sheath knives forged out of old chisels and files and used them to cut at the fat and meat on the pelvis bone. Afterward, for a while I forgot my shameful blue eyes and yellow hair when Enuk leaned back on the bearskin couch. He hooked his thumb under his chin. His gaze slid away, beyond the leaning logs of the back wall. His pleasant face might have said aarigaa taikuu, but what he did say was, "Tat time it blowing same like tis, up Jesus Crick I kill my dowgs." I wiped my greasy hands on my pants and climbed onto his words as if they were a long team to pull me away to the land of strength and adultness.
He whittled a toothpick out of a splinter of kindling. He let the chips spin into the darkness under the table to mix with the caribou hairs and black mouse turds that carpeted our hewn floorboards. Eskimos weren't like Franklin and Crazy Joe or other naluagmius who occasionally came upriver; Enuk's story was just to fill the night and he wasn't afraid to let silence happen between words. Time was one bend of open water to him and he hunched comfortable on the bank, enjoying what the current carried.
With the stick, Enuk picked his teeth. He had most of his teeth, he said, because he never liked "shigger" or "booze." I didn't know what booze meant and was scared to ask, vaguely convinced it might be something frilly that city women ordered out of the first half of the Sears catalog. I sat on the chopping-block stump and stared up into his face.
Abe threw a log into the stove. Sparks hissed red trails up around his shaggy head and flicked into darkness against the low ceiling poles. The poles around the five-gallon-can safety hung with dust tendrils from past smoke. Smoke and the oily odor of flame spread in the room. Abe filled a kettle, making hot water for tea. Mice and shrews rattled spoons on the kitchen boards.
"Wind blow plen'y hard tat night I get lost. Freeze you gonna like nothing." Enuk nodded at our bellied-in plastic sheeting windows behind his head, white and hard with drifted snow. A dwindling line of black night showed at the top. "My lead dowg, he been bite my dowgs. Al'uv'em tangle in'a willows. I leave 'em, let'um bury. I sleep in ta sled, on qaatchiaq. Tat night I never sleep much."
He chuckled and glared. "You listen, Yellow-Hair? Can't see only nothing too much wind." Enuk's bottom lip was thick and dark and permanently thrust out. I laughed, shy, and slapped my grubby red feet on the cold floor and tried to push out my too-thin lip.
In the corner on Abe's spruce-slab bed, Jerry and Iris lay on his caribou-hide qaatchiaq playing checkers. "Rabies," Jerry murmured. "His story's going to have rabies."
She pinched him. "It's your turn." A shrew ran on the floor. Enuk's black eyes followed it. He picked up the block of kindling and waited. Behind the wood box shrews whistled.
Jerry dragged a moose-antler checker over her pieces. The tops of his were marking-penned black, Iris's red. "'Kay then. King me." They wore corduroy pants. The corduroy ridges were eroded off the knees, thighs, and butts. Iris had two belt loops cinched together with twine to keep her too-big pants up. Abe didn't encourage us to change clothes more than once a month. More than twice a month put a burden on everybody. He wouldn't say no, but the house was low and one room-the only place to get out of the weather for miles-and the faintest disapproval could hang in the air.
The corner posts of Abe's bed were weather-silvered logs, the tops bowled from use as chiseling blocks and ashtrays. Above the foot of his bed, his workbench was messy with empty rifle brass, pieces of antler and bone, rusty bolts, wood chips, and abandoned paintings, the canvas and paper bent and ripped by his chisels and heavy planes. Abe Hawcly was a left-handed artist. He was also our dad. But we kids didn't know to call him anything generic or fatherly, only Abe. Travelers called him that. By the time we realized what normal people did, years had hardened into history. Calling him Dad felt worse than shaking hands.
"Enuk. Here." Abe slid a mug across the uneven boards to the middle of the table. He rubbed his sore knee and sat and rolled himself a cigarette with one hand. "Kids, don't worry about schoolwork tonight." He waved his match out. Two joints of his ring finger had been swallowed by a whaling winch in Barrow. His hands were thick and red, paint dried in the cracks. They carved faces on scraps of firewood and drew whole valleys lurking with animals on cardboard boxes.
"Ah, taikuu." Enuk slurped the scalding tea that would have seared a kid's mouth into mealy blisters. "My dowgs be funny tat night. Lotta growl."
Another night passed in his story.
"How old were you?" My words tumbled away like a fool's gloves bouncing downwind. Blood stung my cheeks. Interrupting seemed worse than pissing your pants in front of the village schoolhouse.
"Hush, Cutuk," Jerry said. Iris giggled and pretended to bite her nails, both hands at once. Abe had a piece of caribou-sinew string in his fingers, and he began pulling loops through loops. A lead dog formed. He turned the wick down on the lamp. Storytelling shadows stretched farther out from the moldy corners. The wind gusted. The door was half buried. I pictured those yellow metal nuggets. Wondered if they were in Enuk's pocket, and how young he'd been when he found the first one.
Excerpted from ORDINARY WOLVES by SETH KANTNER Copyright © 2004 by SETH KANTNER. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Seth Kantnertrapper, fisherman, photographer, igloo-builder, and acclaimed author of Ordinary Wolveswas born in a sod igloo on the Alaskan tundra and raised simply on the land, wearing mukluks before they were fashionable, eating boiled caribou pelvis, and communing with the Iñupiaq, the native Eskimos of the region. With a photographer’s eye and a writer’s heart, Seth Kantner reveals an America unknown to many of us. Kantner attended the University of Alaska and the University of Montana, where he received a B. A. in journalism. Kantner’s writings and photographs have appeared in Outside, Prairie Schooner, Alaska, Switch!, Reader’s Digest, among other anthologies and publications. He lives with his wife and daughter in northwest Alaska. Ordinary Wolves is his first novel.
Contributor residences (city, state or country if outside the US or Canada): Kotzebue, Alaska.
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Ordinary Wolves is well-written and convincing in its description of a young, sensitive, total outsider trying to find a community he can accept and will take him in. His experiences growing up in a modern subsistence lifestyle in the Arctic also seem authentic from what I know. I liked the way he balanced the scenes of the wolves, representing Nature with the encroachment on them by both White and Inupiaq culture. The protagonist's efforts to understand his unusual family and why on earth his admired father chose this bizarre isolated life in a sod igloo intrigue me--as he seems to become more and more like his father. A lot to cover and hold together, and author manages with great style. But I have problems with the way the Inupiaq village is portrayed, (and I have lived in one near his fictional location) in that he reports it as a young outsider would, coming to 'town' only every other month or so, who misses much of what goes on there, so the village's life and characters show all the bleak side--which seems authentic-- but little of the strengths and virtues that remain. He stereotypes both the Whites and Inupiaqs, with a few eexceptions, as such an outsider would, or shows the people in only one or two roles --like men hunting or drinking-- thus ends up with an unbalanced message. I find the plotting sags too. There are long sections that are quite static, which I can impart to this troubled hero's character, but mor serious is the narrow character development. Really, none of the women are more than shadows except his sister, his brother Jerry the same. The suffering hero and his alter ego father are the only full characters. But this challenging book is definitely worth reading and does help balance the sentimental junk about Native peoples' lives. Just don't let the exotic setting and authentic voice seduce you into thinking this is the 'real' picture of Inupiaq village culture. It is one view. Read some non-fiction on the subject--there is plenty available-- to balance it.
Two days now, he's made me late for my government job, this Cutuk Kanter. I should be parked in front of the blue Dell glow. Instead I'm lying on my couch under the south window of my suburban Crotch City house, warming in the Arctic Sun, and reading a True story about life in the North. Publisher's Weekly says Cutuk's the best since Jack London, which says a mouthful about Northern fiction. This is not Jack London. Not John McPhee. Not, God fobid, James Michener or Peter Jenkins. This is where Jack Kerouac and Nanook lock eyes and walk away together. Don't expect the whole story. This is the cracks between the logs, the vole holes in the floor, the leaks in the sod, the spiders in the corner, the all encompassing entropy so few escape. The tourism people down in Juneau are not going to like it. It's not the prettied-up Alaska they sell to the Princess herds on the freshly washed buses. This is the other Alaska, the Alaska we live in every day after the tourists have disappeared into the sky, after the Eskimo girls have taken off their fancy quspuqs and dancy mukluks and lit up a joint. If you live in Crotch City and this book makes you mad, good. Only don't be mad at Cutuk. He just wrote it all down. Alaska has never had a book like this before. I wish it was mine.
I absolutely believe that this book, is the most exceptional book on not only life but also animal and human habitats. From the beginning Of Part 1:The Land the story tells the introduction of how Cutuk begins his life as a man who is viewed as a boy in the Inupiaq tribe who tries to prove himself that he can one of them. This story quickly enters into something extraordinary as Cutuk gives his hand at hunting, survival in the coldest of temperatures as well as listening and taking notes from his dogs. Soon however, it seems that the more Cutuk advances in his survival and tribe entrance quest, the wolves that cohabitate the land with him, start to communicate in the most interesting way of what man and beast can communicate in, that being hunting and gathering. I think that Cutuk believes that as he learns his way to be one of the Inupiaq people, the wolves subliminally begin to help him as well. After this section of story is completed it is put that now that Cutuk has experienced what it is like to be a survivalist, in his mind the wilderness is all he now knows and is used to. In the second portion Part II: City Cutuk has relocated back to the city from which he had come from, He experiences a genuine misbalance of what it is like to be American and civilized. Cutuk quickly realizes that being a survivalist and what he had himself experienced in the tribe and wilderness, he has to relearn what his life used to be previous of being in the wilderness. This of course proves tricky as he communicates with the people who are in a white and non-white society as well as the way they live hence what he himself has learned which causes much static and character building. These two sections greatly build and distinguish what Cutuk is experiencing both inside and out as he explains to people and the audience of what he thinks and feels about the changeover. He interjects that much of his wilderness experience has given him a broader yet better enhanced perspective of life and the way it is lived. He realizes that people ignore what the other side of the world offers even when they think its the darkest and coldest place yet gives the most amount of abundant and beautiful light. In the third and last section :Part III: Home, It is a tell-tale sign that Cutuk realizes where his heart is, being part of the Inupiaq tribe. The sounds and feelings the narrator gives through this section where he emblemizes who he is and what he is a part of is extraordinary. I believe that Cutuk realizes that this section of the world is the place he belongs in and he finds both acceptance by himself and the people. The language barrier that is incorporated in this novel is exquisite as it gives you a true taste of being part of a tribe and the life of Alaskan life. Absolutley, without a doubt this book is a must read as it is so beautiful and raw as well as the most realistic novel one could read and I am very happy to say I believe this book is one of the best books I have ever read.
Will some 1 tell me if dere are arctic wolves in it ^3^ plz reply to ? thank u!!!!!!!!!! -? SORRY I JUST LIKE TO SAY ? LOL THX 4 READING AND RESPONDING IF YO DO SORRY TO BUG HAVE A GREAT DAY!!!!! =]
It is a good book
Yiu can tell me. I will listen
presenting a life few people will ever know, a remarkable and fresh perspective on the dichotomy between the "everything wanters" and people who are living in a dying culture. wrapped up in a compelling story filled with characters so real you remember them long after the end of the story. a singular and spectacular small huge story. i beseech you to read it.
This is a story of Alaska; the culture of its natives, their struggles, and the life and adventures of a young 'white boy' over a 20 year period. It takes place out on the tundra, in the native Alaskan villages, and then advertures on into larger Alaskan cities. We read this book in our 'Town Book Group,' and everyone agreed it was one of our better reads: I purchased it as a gift for a friend. It is a wonderful tale with rich charactors, great dialog, and a concise plot line. You'll find the book hard to put down.
Kantner is perhaps one of the most descriptive writers I've read. His verbal portrayal of character and action visually describes in such a way that the reader becomes part of the audience. An excellent book, one for the 'I'm keeping this one library'.
Could not stop reading this wonderful hallmark of a first novel. Bravo!!!
It is great to have some serious, thoughtful fiction coming out of Alaska, after a deluge of macho adventure: 'The huge wave knocked me to the deck and tore off my life jacket.' To be followed by the Alaskan Detective line which never ends; exotic settings, formula plots. Ordinary Wolves should bring out some serious writers lurking among the icebergs. One I mentioned before, but got the name wrong, is Call of the Goose by Lesley Thomas. Fun to compare their different POVs. Melissa (again).
Much to be read between the lines.