Guest Review: Colleen Mondor

kantner.jpegOrdinary Wolves
Seth Kantner
Milkweed Editions
330 pp.

Ordinary Wolves provides a clear portrayal of a subtle culture clash that continues to play itself out in the northernmost reaches of the U.S. It is the story of the complexities that make up the distant part of the American wilderness and at its heart, it is about a boy who does not know who he is, and the lengths that he will go to find out just where he belongs.

Seth Kantner won the Whiting Award in November for this debut effort and authors such as Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver and Alaskan Nick Jans have lauded the novel for its honest intensity. As someone who lived in Alaska for ten years, I was happy to see that the novel does not contribute to the long litany of titles trying to cash in on Alaska’s poetic wildness – for example, you will find no images here of tourists suddenly finding religion when sighting a herd of caribou for the first time.

Kantner was born in the bush and lived there all of his life (in a relatively remote northwestern area of the state). He has lived the fabled frontier life, hunting, fishing, and running sled dogs, and knows every aspect of this world for what it is, and not as some romantic show performed for visiting journalists. More significantly, Kantner knows and writes about what it is like to be white and live in an environment dominated by Native Alaskans.

This is a subject that is rarely visited by Alaskan writers and is long overdue for the kind of treatment it receives in the novel. Kantner’s main character, a young white boy named Cutuk, does not know if he fits in the larger world of Anchorage and Fairbanks or should find a way to be happy in the village near his family’s homestead. His search for self and for a way to understand the many different ways that Alaskans live and thrive across the state is the crux of the story. Basically, because of the way in which he grew up, Cutuk does not know who he is, and in the world he lives in, knowing that sort of inner truth is critical to personal survival.

As a young boy Cutuk learns immediately what it is like to be different when his family visits the predominantly Native village. (Typically the only whites are the schoolteachers.) The other children immediately pick fights, and often refer to him in a derogatory Inupiaq term for “whites”. Over the course of several years Cutuk and his family become friends with many of the Natives, come to know them on the most intimate of terms, but he is still sometimes held apart as a visitor who does not fully belong. Even though he lives the same way of life, in fact embraces it on every level, it is clear that he will never be permitted to completely own it.

Because of the way that he looks, it seems as if Cutuk should fit in more in the cities but after trying to live beyond the village, he learns that he does not belong there either. He has to find a way to come to terms with the life the Natives will allow him in the village, and understand that he can be accepted and still held as different at the same time. Ultimately, his acceptance of his own difference is critical to his final understanding of himself, and also of all the people both Native and white, he cares about.

There are many different books to read about Alaska and many different aspects of the state to explore. But Ordinary Wolves takes its readers to a place like no other and reveals more about Alaska and the people who live there than any other title on the Last Frontier.

Colleen Mondor writes for Bookslut and Eclectica Magazine. She grew up in Florida, spent ten years in Alaska and now lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her book on Alaska flying is making the agent rounds and she has an essay in Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans, forthcoming from Chin Music Press in February 2006.


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