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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647

Dogsong is a novel of survival that can be read on many levels and by a wide range of age groups. On one level, Paulsen presents an adventure story in which Russel confronts storms, severe cold, and near starvation, as well as a huge polar bear that he must kill for food to keep both himself and his dogs alive. Surviving under these difficult circumstances, Russel gains a sense of accomplishment and feeling of competency that he might not have been able to achieve if he had remained in his home settlement in the relative comfort provided by his father. By the time that his mentor dies, Russel is no longer in need of instruction; the old ways have become sufficiently ingrained in him that Russel is able to survive on his own.

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During the course of the story, Paulsen presents Inuit customs and beliefs in a sympathetic fashion. He allows readers to grow in understanding and acceptance of these customs and beliefs at the same time that Russel does. At the beginning of the novel, Russel feels vaguely dissatisfied with the snowmobiles and television sets that have widely been adopted by the people of his settlement, although he cannot put into words what makes him uneasy about these components of his lifestyle. With Oogruk as his mentor, Russel learns as much as the old man can remember of the old ways.

At first, Russel feels uncomfortable and almost silly while practicing some of the Inuit customs, such as placing food in the mouth of the animals that he has killed in gratitude for the food that they will provide. At the same time, however, he feels a rightness in his actions unlike anything that he has experienced earlier in his life. Later, these customs become ingrained in his nature, and he even feels a sense of regret when he does not have food available to place in the mouth of the polar bear that he kills. Russel also hears but does not fully understand what Oogruk tells him about the interdependence and bonding between humans and dogs until he spends time with the dogs as his only companions during his solitary journey. By the end of the journey, Russel and his dogs have bonded in the way that Oogruk had predicted they would.

On a more complex level, Paulsen presents a vision quest in which Russel searches for himself and his past. During his extended period of isolation from other people, Russel dreams of a man from a much earlier time period who kills a mammoth with only a spear, suffers many of the same hardships of nature that Russel experiences, and ultimately loses his family when they starve before he can return with meat for them. At first, the man in the dreams is not clearly defined, but, as the dreams progress, the man becomes Russel and, in real time, Russel becomes as competent as the man in his dreams. Russel also achieves his own song because of his adventures and his experiences with his dogs. The song, which Paulsen uses as the concluding pages of the book, with its repeated line of “Come see my dogs,” becomes a celebration of the interdependency of Russel and his dog team. The dream sequence may present problems for some younger readers, particularly when the dreams and reality begin to blend into one. Although Russel’s vision quest, and particularly his dreams, may create some confusion for these readers, for older readers they will provide additional depth to what might otherwise be simply an adventure story.

The novel employs the lyrical language that has become the hallmark of Paulsen’s writing style and that makes the novel ideal for reading aloud. In fact, the story has the sound of the stories that people from an earlier time, reared in an oral culture, might have shared around a campfire.

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Critical Context