Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2322
Russel Susskit lives in Alaska at a time when the old ways of the Eskimo have almost disappeared. His mother ran away with a white trapper and has been gone for many years. Russel now lives alone with his father, who embraces many of the influences from "Outside," including snowmachines, cigarettes, and the white man's religion. Russel has just turned fourteen and has been wrestling with a deep sense of discontent within himself. Overwhelmed, but unable to articulate his feelings, he tells his father that something is bothering him. His father, understanding, suggests that he go to Oogruk for help.
Oogruk is "old and sometimes wise and he also tells good stories." He is virtually the only one in the village who has not given up the old ways, and he owns the only dog team in the vicinity, which he keeps "for memories." Oogruk has a song, which very few people have anymore. Songs are "private and belong only to the person who own[s] them," and, unlike words, they are always true. Russel hopes that Oogruk will help him find his song.
Oogruk resides in a small, box-like government unit like everyone else in the village, but inside his house, he continues to live in the old way. He does not have electricity; he keeps animal skins on the floor and hunting implements on the walls. When Russel arrives, he finds the old man, clothed only in a breechclout, sitting on the floor in a room filled with smoke from a seal-oil lamp. Oogruk is tanned and white-haired, and he is blind. Russel has brought Oogruk a gift of deer eyes, and as the old man prepares and eats the delicacy, he talks about the whales, quietly lamenting that they are gone now, perhaps because of the proliferation of snowmachines, or perhaps because no one has songs anymore.
Russel has long felt that there is "something wrong with the way things [are] now," and he is surprised when Oogruk discerns immediately that this is the source of his discontent. Oogruk tells Russel about the way things were before the missionaries came, when the Eskimos lived in harmony with the land and all that was in it. He says that when the people gave up their songs, they gave up "[their] insides as well." After thinking for a while, Oogruk clarifies this concept by adding, "You don't get songs, you are a song." Russel decides that, more than anything, he wants to be a song, and Oogruk will do his best to show him the way.
Oogruk talks long into the night about the past and the land. As he listens, Russel falls into a trance-like state, then drifts into sleep. When he awakens, Russel knows what he must do. From the walls of Oogruk's house, he takes lances and bows and arrows. After dressing himself in the hardy, animal-skin clothing also found in the house, Russel goes outside and prepares the dogs, who are secured by chains. He finds that he instinctively knows what to do to gain the respect of the lead dog, demonstrating knowledge that he can only have learned from Oogruk while under the trance. Russel hitches the animals to the sled and takes them on a practice run. Although the going is rough at first, by the end of the run, he experiences the exhilarating feeling of being alive and one with the dogs, the sled, and the ice and snow.
Russel stays with Oogruk for many nights and days. The old man teaches him how to direct his weapon into "the center of the center" of his prey, and tells him that when he kills an animal, he must express gratitude that it has allowed itself to be taken by leaving the head with food or fresh water in the mouth. With the dogs and sled, Russel goes hunting, catching first a ptarmigan, then a caribou, in the old way, using the bow and arrows. As he rides the sled back after killing and butchering the caribou, Russel feels his being "go out to the dogs, out ahead." Russel thinks this might be the beginning of his song.
Four days later, Russel takes the team again. This time he goes out to hunt seals. As he is traveling over the ice, a storm hits, but Russel takes shelter in the small space under an ice ledge, and, safely buried, rides out the storm with the dogs "in the same way dogs and wolves have ridden storms out forever." When the inclement weather abates, Russel hitches up the dogs and pushes them to move on in what he believes is their original direction, even though the animals are reluctant. Indeed, the storm has changed the appearance of the icy landscape, and Russel soon realizes that they are lost. Forcing himself to remain calm, he evaluates his options, and the idea comes to him that he can trust the instincts of the dogs. Russel allows his team to run in the direction they want to go, and they bring him home.
Understanding that he is "working toward something in his mind," Russel distances himself from life in the village and moves in with Oogruk. He continues to hunt and learns more about the old ways from the sage. Finally, Russel decides it is time for him to go out on the ice again to hunt seals. Oogruk agrees and, surprisingly, says he will go too. Russel prepares the sled and settles the old man comfortably in it. When the two reach the edge of the ice, Oogruk says that they must talk one more time, and then it will be time for the sage to die. He urges Russel to leave with the dogs and sled to "run long and find [him]self]." It is in this way that the boy will become a man.
Russel protests, but Oogruk is immovable. He says calmly but authoritatively, "An old man knows when death is coming," and insists that Russel leave him there, alone on the ice. There is such strength in his command that Russel has no choice but to go. He travels with the dogs for many miles, but ultimately returns to find Oogruk sitting where he has left him, his eyes fixed lifelessly over the frozen sea.
Equipped with only his weapons, dogs, and sled, Russel then embarks on his dreamrun; everything else he needs will come from the land. He heads north, to where there is nothing, only "the wide center of everything there is." Russel will have to hunt to keep himself and the dogs alive. At first, the full impact of his isolation terrifies him, and he becomes acutely aware of his utter dependence on the dogs. Without them, he will die.
Russel manages to find some small game during those early days and then fortuitously runs into a herd of caribou. With the help of the dogs, he brings down four of them. Because of the abundance of his catch, he is able to set up a camp, and he experiences the contentment of having "warmth and a full belly" in a home similar to what his people had enjoyed "for thousands of years." When he sleeps, Russel dreams of a skin shelter by the side of the sea. A man lives there with his family, and their existence is sustained by the meat, skin, and fat of an unfamiliar animal, which is soon revealed to be the woolly mammoth. In a fierce confrontation, the man hunts down and kills one of these majestic creatures, and afterwards sings in exultation. Russel feels the song within his soul and recognizes that he is the man in his dream.
A storm is approaching, and Russel knows that he must continue his run. He finds that he is of one mind with his dogs now. They want to run north, and he allows them to lead. That night, he makes camp under a natural overhanging shelf, and discovers, buried in the ground, an old, polished lamp made of stone. When he sleeps, Russel dreams again about the man, who has come to a village with his sled filled with the meat of the woolly mammoth. There is a great celebration upon his arrival, and the man dances before the gathered villagers, telling the story of the kill. As he moves, the man becomes the mammoth, and in his frenetic motions there is sadness, because the great beast knows that he must die so that the people can live. There are other men too, who dance other songs which follow one after another, and "[soar] on and on."
The storm catches up to Russel. He stays with his dogs at his camp for more than two days. When the weather clears, he sets out again, worrying not about the destination, but instead attending to the journey, as Oogruk has advised. Russel lets the dogs run, and they travel steadily northward, day and night. As he rides the runners for endless hours, fatigue overtakes him. Russel begins to hallucinate, and he dreams again about the man, who is now anxiously fighting through a storm to get back to his family: he has been away too long, and they are starving.
During his ceaseless run, Russel and his team suddenly come upon a snowmachine, abandoned in the middle of the vast nothingness. A set of small footprints leads away from it, and Russel pushes the dogs to follow them until they will run no more. Another storm hits, and Russel again must make a shelter and hunker down until it passes. As he approaches the lead dog to release it from its chain, he trips and falls upon something almost buried in the snow along the trail: it is a person, barely alive. Quickly, Russel builds a lean-to, lights the stone lamp for warmth, and drags the unconscious person inside. He is astonished to discover that the person is a girl-woman and that she is pregnant.
Knowing that the girl-woman will be hungry when she awakens, Russel prepares some meat. Exhausted, he then falls into a deep sleep himself. He dreams again, and this time, the man in his dream finally returns home, only to find that "every little thing that would have meant life and home [is] gone." Where his family had once lived, there remains only a stone lamp and two small human bones. Distraught, the man drives his sled night and day and night until the dogs are worn down to the point of death. The man who is Russel awakens then to find that the girl-woman in his tent is conscious now; she is the woman in the dream, and the stone lamp is the the same as well. The dividing line between the physical and the pictures in his mind is gone now: the dream has become his life, and the run is now the dream.
The girl-woman's name is Nancy, and she had become pregnant without meaning to, without being married. The missionaries in her village had told her she had sinned, so she ran away on the snowmachine onto the tundra to die. As they eat and talk, Nancy asks Russel how he, too, has come to be out here, alone on the barren iceland, and he is not sure what to say. He responds only that he is "a person who is running north...that is all," and he adds that he will run until he reaches "the end of where [he is] going." Oddly, she understands his meaning and asks if she can go with him. Wondering briefly if the dream's message is that he is not supposed to be alone on his journey, Russel consents.
Russel and Nancy continue northward for many days, but there is no game. As they and the dogs weaken, Russel makes a camp, and, leaving Nancy there, goes off with the team on his own in a desperate search for food. For a long time, he finds nothing, but just when it seems that he must give up all hope of surviving, he comes across a great polar bear. Russel does not know how he will kill an animal so large, but, recalling the details of his dream about the man's encounter with the woolly mammoth, he sees that his only chance is to engage with the beast in such a way that it impales itself on the lance, so that the sharp point penetrates to its very center. Although one of the dogs is sacrificed in the ferocious battle that follows, Russel somehow emerges victorious and returns to Nancy with "a mountain of meat."
Nancy is so weakened by now that the food cannot restore her to health. She goes early into a punishing labor, but her baby is born without life. Afterwards, Russel tries to care for Nancy, but she does not get better, and he knows that he must take her to a settlement to seek help from a doctor. The two set off again on the sled, stopping first at the place where the remains of the polar bear lie, to replenish their supply of meat. Nancy brightens with amazement when she sees what Russel has managed to do with his humble spear, but Russel feels sadness, because the bear has had to give its life and, because of its massive size, they must leave so much of what has been offered behind.
Russel drives the dogs onward with his mind, across the land to the edge of the sea. He knows that there will be a village soon, and though Nancy is weak, when she looks at him, her face glows with pride at the things he and his dogs have accomplished. As they approach a settlement, Russel sings a song to himself: it is his dogsong, celebrating his dogs, and his life, and what he has become.
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