Dog pissicles. Shrew turds in the flour. Frostbite. Caribou stew and seal oil. Ice drownings, mosquito swarms, wolf bites, domestic violence, and Aquanet and Lysol cocktails. This is the terrain that Seth Kantner describes in his debut novel, Ordinary Wolves, a book that manages at once to present an exotic sense of the American tundra and to demystify one of the few places in the country that remains an enigma.
Our guide into this forbidding world is blond, Chicago-born Cutuk (his Inupiaq name), who is being reared by his loving older siblings and an artist father, Abe. This odd family patriarch gave up his marriage and his life in the lower 48 to follow in his own father's footsteps and live off the land. As a boy, Cutuk hunts and fishes, cares for his team of sled dogs, dodges fights with the Eskimo kids, and struggles to reconcile his place as a white man living among indigenous people. In his early 20s, he follows his siblings to Fairbanks, a city that nearly does him in with its shopping malls, packaged meals, and unfamiliar slang and innuendo. He misses his dogs and his father, the solitude and silence of his home in Takunak.
Kantner, who himself grew up in a sod igloo on the Alaskan tundra, neatly treads the line between overselling an environmental message and telling a distinctive and affecting story. The author's bio describes him as a "trapper, fisherman, photographer, [and] igloo-builder," and Kantner brings these sensibilities to bear on the wildly different realms of modern Alaska. Abe mocks the do-gooders in the "Sara Club," as well as the hordes of "Everything Wanters," rich hunters and developers who encroach on their land. Cutuk says, "I pictured developers as huge leaping creatures, frog-colored, long and mean. They leapt like green fire across valleys, chewing tops off mountains, ripping up trees, flossing with cables."
Interspersed in this human narrative, Kantner follows a pack of wolves, whose life cycles mirror and frame Cutuk's. Patterns repeat in the natural world, as Cutuk and his companions play out an ageless drama of death, loyalty, courage, and cowardice. In the end, his people are not just white or native--they are those who never relinquish their ties to the land, who understand that they are just as flawed and resilient as the other animals that inhabit the wilds of the tundra.