Although my copy of Ordinary Wolves tells me it’s a best seller, unlike The Kite Runner, I don’t know anyone else who has read it. Like The Kite Runner, it’s a good choice when a teacher asks for a ‘multicultural’ novel or a book about a culture different from your own.
Ordinary Wolves is the story of a white boy who grows up in the 1970s in the Alaskan wilderness. Cutuk lives in a sod igloo with his artist father and his brother and sister. They have no modern conveniences and live like the local Inupiak (Inuit or Eskimo) people have traditionally done. The father, Abe, is an environmentalist to a degree that few people can (or are willing to) manage. Ironically, as the local Inupiaks are adopting some modern American conveniences such as flush toilets and fast food, Cutuk wants to follow tradition. Tradition not withstanding, because he is not really an Inupiak, he is taunted, beaten up, and generally rejected by other children. Loneliness and isolation are important themes of the novel.
The author, Seth Kantner, lived such a childhood, and the novel is autobiographical. Because he knows what he’s talking about, Kantner doesn’t romanticize the wilderness. Living in the icy north of Alaska is tough at all times. Even running sled dogs requires constant vigilance as ice may get between their toe pads and cause frostbite. (Summer is no easier as flies swarm and cause the dogs misery by biting their testicles.) In the struggle to make a life on the frozen tundra, Cutuk, like his father, attempts to do no harm to the people and world around him. When he moves to Anchorage as a young adult, he finds life in the city confusing and the residents disingenuous.
Ordinary Wolves is a good choice for those who enjoy Jack London’s fiction, like wilderness survival stories, have a deep concern for the environment, or just have a desire to understand what ‘roughing it’ really means.