Ordinary Wolves

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

Seth Kantner, in his first novel, Ordinary Wolves, writes about a world that he knows firsthand, having grown up in similar circumstances to his protagonist, Cutuk. The love and respect that he has for a disappearing lifestyle and exploited land are apparent, and he is able to transfer these feelings to his audience, who is made aware of the seriousness of the loss.

Ordinary Wolves is the story of the boy Cutuk, but it is also the story of the land. Cutuk, five years old when the novel begins, grows up in the remote regions of Alaska, learning the traditional ways and dreaming of being a hunter like the Iñupiaq village elder and family friend Enuk Wolfglove. Cutuk lives with his eight-year-old sister, Iris, and his ten-year-old brother, Jerry, in a sod igloo built by their father, Abe, in an area so remote that Takunak, the nearest village, is two days away by dogsled. Abe, an artist with a temperament and a profession that is suited to such isolation, left Chicago for a life in harmony with the rhythms of nature. It is a position that Cutuk comes to understand. Cutuk's mother, of whom he has few memories, has returned, for reasons unexplained, to the lower United States.

The family is close to being self-sufficient. They make clothing from caribou and beaver. Old sweaters are recycled into vests and mending yarn for socks. Buttons and zippers are salvaged from worn-out clothes. As the children learn quickly, nothing is wasted. They obtain food from hunting, fishing, and gathering. From a slain moose, all is used except the windpipe, lungs, and stomach contents. Meals might be dried meat and seal oil or pot-roasted lynx eaten with a salad of springtime shoots, such as fireweed and bluebell. For the money that the family needs, Abe makes wood furniture and paints Alaskan scenes to sell in Anchorage. However, his best oil paintings, especially those of wolves, he burns.

Life in a sod igloo on the arctic tundra is challenging. Abe and the children change clothes only once a month because of the burden of doing laundry. They use a chamber pot in the winter to avoid breaking a trail to the outhouse. Such a life is potentially dangerous, as the climate is so unforgiving. Winter temperatures are often thirty degrees below zero, so cold that the kerosene for the lamps congeals, so cold that their sled dogs stand on three legs in order to thaw the fourth, and so cold that Cutuk will warm his hands in the pooling blood of a slain moose.

Because of their remoteness, the children are home-schooled, and visits from their rare guests are occasions for celebration. Two or three times a year, the family travels to Takunak, a town of 150 people. These trips, which must coincide with the freezing and “Breakup” of the Kuguruk River, are to get mail and to purchase necessities, such as flour, powdered milk, gun powder, and occasionally a bag of apples and vanilla for snow cones. Because his family are outsiders, these trips bring anguish to Cutuk, who, feeling the stigma of being white, prefers his Inuk name to his English one of Clayton, tries to flatten his nose, and is ashamed of his blond hair and blue eyes.

Cutuk is stared at because “no one had ever learned not to stare,” ostracized, and bullied, even though he is more knowledgeable of the Inuk ways than the other children. One of the few who befriend him is Dawna, Enuk's granddaughter, and at twelve he is enamored with her: “I wanted her to be the first person I ever kissed—after I learned how.”

Cutuk and his siblings are taught traditional ways by their father and Enuk. They sew caribou socks, mukluks (boots made from skins), and rawhide-and-birch snowshoes. They tan hides with sour dough, and skin foxes in order to sell the pelts. They know to ice the runners of the sleds with bear fur dipped in water and to bite off with their teeth the ice balls that form between the toes of the sled dogs.

Abe and Enuk teach Cutuk respect for the land and its game. Honoring a slain wolf, Enuk cuts its throat to release its spirit. Hunting moose with his father, Cutuk is reminded not to shoot wolves that are not needed by the family. After Abe has left their campsite to take some of the moose meat back to their home, ten-year-old Cutuk is left to guard the rest of the meat. During the night he hears the wolves howling and the sounds of one chasing a small animal. He aims at a wolf but does not shoot, recognizing the intrinsic value of the wolf: “That wolf—how many miles and years had he walked under this smoky green light [aurora borealis]? Walked cold,...

(The entire section is 1878 words.)