Ordinary Wolves


(This 724th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 13, 2005.)


While I admire those who willingly spend a winter night out in a tent or lean-to or even in a cabin, I am happy to return to a fireplace and warm bed at the end of every day. I can hardly imagine living regularly under those conditions like the Inuit.


As a hedge against the cabin fever associated with our recent near-blizzard, I read a semi-autobiographical novel about an Alaskan family who did live in an isolated hut in the far north. The book is Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner (Milkweed Editions) and I rank it very high for its vivid and poetic descriptions of that polar region.


The story follows a young boy, Cutuk Hawcly, as he grows to young manhood. For much of that time he lives with his father Abe and his older siblings, Jerry and Iris, in one room, miles from other humans in northern Alaska. Their nearer neighbors are wolves, ravens, caribou, ptarmigan, wolverines and moose. Their pets are their sled dogs.


I will try to give you a sense of this book by quoting shortened passages.


On their living conditions: "In the last days of April our sod roof began leaking. We had dishpans and pots spread, pinging under the tea-colored drips. We were lighthearted as we carried grub boxes and sleeping skins down to load on our sleds. Abe chuckled. 'Drips, that's spring telling you to get outside. Bears will be getting the same message.' We laced on our mamillaks. They were skin‑out mukluks, sticky and yellow‑black with old seal oil." In winter the family has to chop ice from inside their one door to get it open.


There is excitement too. Here is Cutuk eating out alone on a mid-winter night: "Jaws crunched a bone. I dropped the rib and snatched the rifle. The dark was made of dots, walls of eyes. My stomach tightened. The wolves had come!


"Snow squeaked. The darkness moved into shapes. Slowly, I turned my head. Behind stood more.


"The chik‑chunk of the rifle loading sounded as loud as river ice booming. I aimed over the dark shaking sights. My thoughts scattered down terrified trails. Now I would never get to be Eskimo or see a 747. I tried to place myself in a future story to milk heroism out of my bad luck, but all I saw were clumps of bones and yellow hair. A voice I hadn't heard whispered, 'Shoot! Shoot!' I gripped the gun. I was ten. People in the village would know it the next time they teased, 'Catch any weasel in your trap, Cutuk?'


"The steel trigger froze through my fox mitten liner. I yanked back. The gun lurched. The black wolf I'd aimed at sniffed his paw.


"The safety. I flipped the lever. I looked over the barrel, tried to aim. The northern lights had dimmed. It was harder to make out shapes.


"The wolf lifted his nose and howled. The pack joined. Fear and elation skated on my skin. Were they cheering? Or voting? I felt cruel for lusting to kill one. I had eaten; I had a warm wolf ruff on my hood -‑ but the gnawing inside was jittery and big, a hunger to kill and be great for it. It wasn't good, it was mean, but it felt glued all over inside me.


"The harmony ceased. The wolves stood, listening. Finally, miles east, upwind, across the tundra, I heard the snap of branches, and fainter still, runners squeaking on cold snow; eventually came a low mumble that I knew as Abe's encouraging 'Atta boys. Good girl, Farmer. Haw over now. Haw over.'"


A white boy, Cutuk admires and wishes he was an Eskimo even when he is confronted by the terribly dehumanizing conditions of the nearest village or when he ventures farther into civilization: "I missed stepping out every morning and having weather decide my day, dogs prancing in the snow, sky arching over unowned horizons, sustenance waiting out there: caribou or rabbit, muskrat or bear. The tiny wet stars brushed my face. Cars migrated along Dimond Boulevard. The March evening had cooled, and in the parking lot shoppers tilted their heads, covered their perfect hair with newspapers, and rushed to their vehicles, cursing winter for showing itself, then riding away seated in their heated metal boxes to houses bright with electric lights, hot baths on tap and a hundred songs waiting inside every radio."


This is a story about animals as well as humans confronting a harsh and ultimately changing environment. I predict that it will become a classic.-- Gerry Rising