I read Gary Paulsen’s Dogsong, winner of a 1986 Newbery honor, because I couldn’t find my copy of his other Newbery winner from the ’80’s, Hatchet, which I intended to read. Maybe that’s not the most compelling reason to pick up a book, but it’s the truth. I read Hatchet years ago, and it made enough of an impression on me that I can remember the basic plot as well as the style and tone. Dogsong is very similar in style and tone, and if the plot is different (which surely we’d expect), the theme is similar: a coming-of-age survival story. Dogsong is the story of fourteen year old Russel Susskit. Russel is (presumably) an Eskimo teen who longs for the days before technology and the encroachment of non-natives to their culture changed the way the Eskimos lived. The story gets going quickly with Russel visiting the village shaman who tells him of the old ways and especially of how the relationship between a man and his dogs is everything. Russel experiences some sort of vision while visiting with Oogruk and then sets out to make his own way in the world of the far north, just him with Oogruk’s dog team and sled. From there on it’s nonstop adventure, with Russel learning how to run the dogs and constantly looking for food, all the while being driven on by a series of dreams about an ancient man who is somehow his adult self. There’s a good bit of mysticism in the story, which I assume is taken from the Eskimo culture. There’s some tension between old ways versus new ways, too. Mostly, though, it’s an adventure story about an adolescent boy growing up.
I’ll be honest–this isn’t the sort of book I love. I mean, I do love adventure, but being immersed in a culture that to me seems brutal (at times) is a reach. The truth is, though, that there are people groups who lived and perhaps still live like this; it’s a part of our world. I feel like I picked up a good bit about Eskimo culture–if not facts, certainly the feeling or spirit of the culture. Paulsen’s works remind me a bit of Jack London’s, and I imagine Paulsen might be a good gateway into London. I wouldn’t mind reading something else by Paulsen. Maybe I’ll find my copy of Hatchet.