January 2006

Colleen Mondor


The Real Alaska: Seth Kantner and Ordinary Wolves

When I first moved to Alaska in 1992 I still believed strongly in the National Geographic version of the state. I knew that living there would be complicated (40 below zero isn’t easy for anybody), but I expected it to be more of a long drawn out wildlife special than anything else. Granted, I was living in Fairbanks, which is certainly civilization (they even have a Walmart now!), but it’s a six hour drive though some desolate highway to the nearest city and when it gets bitter cold you can only hunker down in your house and not go out. It’s not exactly the shopping mall and pavement-type civilization I grew up in. And we did have moose in the yard all winter long (sometimes blocking the front door) and I saw the Aurora and Denali and because I worked for a small airline, I flew out into the bush. After ten years of living there, I became familiar with what Alaska was really like, and who Alaskans really are. What I rarely saw though was an accurate depiction of the state or its people by anyone else. And after awhile, I didn’t pay much attention to those National Geographic specials anymore.

To be honest, I haven’t read or watched much of anything about Alaska in a long long time. After working in a bookstore in Fairbanks (the farthest north independent bookstore in the country), and seeing what was being published about Alaska (don’t even ask me what I think about Jon Krakauer), there didn’t seem to be much of a point. I was nearly always disappointed and sometimes even angry. I don’t know everything about Alaska -- not by a long shot -- but I know enough and it has been clear to me for awhile that most authors writing about the state know next to nothing at all. And then I read Ordinary Wolves.

Author Seth Kantner has spent his entire life immersed in what is truly a uniquely Alaskan lifestyle. After years spent reading books that did not portray the Alaska he knew, he decided it was time to write his own. The decision to make his story fiction was easy – as he explained to me when we met recently, “it freed me from a lot of research and allowed me to write what I know.” What Kantner knows, better than most, is what it is like to live in a very remote place on the Earth, and not only survive there, but thrive. What he explores in his book however, is the tradeoffs that anyone must make when they choose such a distant life.

In an hour and a half or so of conversation, I learned that Seth Kantner grew up in the bush, (and I mean serious bush -- he was over 200 miles from the nearest village of significant size) and has spent his life hunting, fishing and running sled dogs. He went to college, both in Fairbanks and Outside, but returned home because it is “the only place he really feels right.” As someone who is still uncomfortable in crowds, I know what he means, but because of his unusual upbringing, Kantner’s discomfort is taken a whole step further. He grew up white in an environment that is almost completely Native Alaskan. While any number of sources would say this is insignificant, the truth is that there are a multitude of cultural differences between whites and Natives in Alaska. That constant struggle to fit in with the people he knew best is the driving force behind Ordinary Wolves.

The book’s narrator, a young white boy named Cutuk, loves Alaska and he loves the bush, but his life there is more an accident than anything else. He and his family are there only because his father chose to raise his family in a northern ideal -- in a place that he had dreamed about. Their acceptance by the people of the nearby village is tenuous at best, but it is never their choice if they will fit in and be accepted, it is always the Natives who decide. As Cutuk and his brother and sister grow up they all feel the lure of the “big” cities (Fairbanks and Anchorage) and the possibilities they present. Cutuk is not sure that an easier way of life is worth it to give up his close connection to the land however, or to leave behind the people he knows best. His struggle to find his place in the world drives the plot and also forces him to consider a lot of hard decisions. This is not uncommon for anyone who grows up in a very small community (less than 100 people), but when combined with the mixed race nature of the Alaskan bush, Cutuk has a lot to consider.

There were many times when reading about Cutuk’s adventures that I was struck by how pitch perfect Kantner was about Alaska. In all the little ways that Cutuk interacts with the outside world -- either through the excitement of a mail plane’s arrival or by relying on someone else’s well worn check as currency -- Kantner makes it clear that this is the book he was born to write. There is no aspect of village life that he ignores, from the heartbreakingly sad lives of sled dogs (something that will always bother me) to the seemingly casual way in which violence is so easily dismissed. Clearly, he knows the world he has written about. And yet this isn’t a wilderness Oliver Twist. Cutuk has very good friends in the village and the things they know, the life they all embrace, is more powerful than any commercial offering in the big city.

When I walked around Seattle with Seth, he told me he knew he looked like he fit in there, but we both understood that he did not. He is not someone who can leave the village behind. “I look like these people,” he said, “but I’m not one of them.” The problem is that he doesn’t look like the people he really belongs to, and on some level, and to some people, that still matters. There are racial divisions in Alaska, small and subtle and often barely noticeable, but they are there. And when you first see Seth Kantner in his sweatshirt and jeans, you think he is just another guy who lives in Seattle. Basically, he doesn’t look Native enough to be born and raised outside of Kotzebue, Alaska. And that’s another truth about Alaska that few visitors take the time to notice, and few readers seem to want to know about.

Ordinary Wolves is not an easy book to love. I say that because it doesn’t set itself up as a great romance or literary mystery, there is nothing to solve here, nothing to wish for. You can only hope that Cutuk will find his way, that his friends and family will support him, that the village will welcome him home. It is a book designed to transport its readers to Alaska and then challenge them to stay long enough to really understand the Last Frontier and all of the people who live there. It is the real thing, and for the first time in a long time, it is finally the real thing about the 49th State. And other than saying I’ve been and there and know it and I believe in Ordinary Wolves, I don’t know how much more strongly I can recommend this book to others.

Fellow writers Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich and Nick Jans have all announced their love of Ordinary Wolves and I just can’t seem to forget it. In all of its ugliness and all of its beauty, Alaska lives in Seth Kantner’s novel. And now, for him, there is the next book to consider, something else to reveal about the place he knows so intimately and so honestly that it would be a shame if he did not spend his life writing about it for the rest of us. For me there is just a lesson in bravery, in writing what you know and not being dissuaded from the story that your heart owns best. Seth Kantner could have written the same Alaskan book we have already read before -- the type that the tourists love to buy. Instead he wrote the book they should be reading, the one that will change their whole perception of the Last Frontier. He wrote Ordinary Wolves and it is a glorious thing to be that brave, a brilliant and glorious thing.