What are the major changes Russel goes through in Dogsong by Gary Paulsen?

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Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are many ways that Russel changes throughout Dogsong.  In short, Russel learns to value the old Inuit ways, to respect the value of his sled dogs, and to preserve life through the character of Nancy.

First, Russel learns to value the old Eskimo ways of the Inuit tribe, mostly through the character of Oogruk.  Russel’s own father is so immersed in modern ways that he can only point his son to the town elder, who can help Russel.  When Russel arrives, he learns a lot just from how Oogruk is living.  Even though he lives in the same type of small home that the others do, he continues to observe the old ways.  Oogruk doesn’t have electricity and uses animal skins for insulation.  Hunting tools line his walls.  Oogruk uses seal-oil in his lamp and wears only a breechclout. Oogruk teaches Russel to hunt using bows and arrows and tells him to direct them “to the center of the center” of his prey.  Oogruk truly becomes the instrument or the catalyst for Russel’s change when he sends him “north” with only his sled dogs to learn their “song.”  Oogruk instructs Russel that songs are different than words in that songs are always true.

Next, Russel changes in learning the value of his sled dogs.  His sled dogs are what keep him alive on his esoteric journey “north” and become characters themselves.  Russel learns to trust the instinct of the dogs over his own human thoughts.  For example, when he hides under the ice ledge and decides to set out in the wrong direction, the dogs’ reluctance to follow Russel’s lead and their correct judgment in direction lead Russel home.  On his “dreamrun,” Russel brings down four caribou only with the help of his dogs.  Russel is sustained by them fully and knows now that he would die without them.  The dogs continue taking Russel north until he runs into Nancy, the next person who allows Russel to change.

Finally, Nancy helps Russel learn the value of life.  Nancy is an unwed mother who has been told she has “sinned” by the western missionaries, and so has run off into the wilderness to die.  The sled dogs lead Russel directly to Nancy and, through her care, Russel learns to preserve human life.  Due to his knowledge of the old ways, Russel is able to kill a polar bear whose meat sustains both Russel and Nancy.  Even though Nancy has a stillborn child, Nancy remains alive due to Russel’s intuition and ingenuity.  Because of Nancy’s worsening condition (due to the stillbirth), Russel instinctively knows he has to get her to a settlement.  Nancy has great pride for Russel with all of his new-found knowledge.  The dogs lead Russel and Nancy to an isolated settlement where medical help can be found.

Thus, Russel has learned the value of the old Inuit ways, the importance of his dogs, and the need to sustain life.  Through these changes (and by the end of the novel), Russel has truly learned his “dogsong.” 

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