Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Dogsong by Gary Paulsen


Into the sweeps, into the great places here the land runs to the sky and into the sky until there is no land and there is no sky.


Into the distance where all lines end and all lines begin. Into the white line of the ice-blink where the mother of wind lives to send down the white death of the northern storms.


Into the mother of wind and the father of blue ice.

Russel went out where there is nothing, into the wide center of everything there is.

Into the north.

As far as pure writing goes, I think there are very few young adult books I've read better than Dogsong--it's a powerful book and very poetic. I'm on record as saying that the tightness of young adult literature is routinely superior to adult fiction; postmodern books often seem to me to be weighted down by their own breadth and lack of focus. But YA books tend to be shallow and clumsy as well, so it's refreshing to read a book like this one that's well-written and lacks pandering.

Dogsong is the story of Russel Susskit, a native Eskimo boy who feels uneasy with the way his people have appropriated the ways of outsiders; you might say he has an old soul. His father is a chain-smoking Jesus freak but nevertheless senses the way his son feels and suggests he go visit with Oogruk, an old man who owns the village last dogsled. Oogruk lives in the old way, using seal oil for lamplight instead of electricity and covering his floor with skins. Oogruk teaches Russel to drive the dogsled--though his advice is less technical and more like "Be the dogs, Russell--be the dogs."

Eventually Russel comes to understand that he must take the dogs north on a survival trip. Not to anywhere particular, but just to do it, to recapture the spirit of his ancestors. I don't know, it sounds less cheesy when Paulsen writes it. He begins to have strange dreams of himself grown up, but in ancient times hunting mammoth, prophetic dreams prowhich lead to him saving the life of a young pregnant girl out on the ice.

There is a scene--and here is a major spoiler, so skip it if you like--where Russel helps the girl deliver her baby in their skin tent, and it is stillborn. I think it is a testament to Paulsen's ability that, unlike the deaths in Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Terabithia, there is real sadness but also real understanding about the natural process that causes such a tragedy to occur.

I had to assign independent reading to my kids and, having never read this, assigned Call of the Wild to a few of the male students I thought needed real lessons in what it means to "be a man." I think that if I had to go back and do it again I would save a few slots for them to read Dogsong.


Amanda said...

"...the tightness of young adult literature is routinely superior to adult fiction; postmodern books often be weighted down by their own breadth and lack of focus."


This is by the same guy who wrote Hatchett, right? It's been a long time since I read any of his books.

Christopher said...

Yes, it is.

Nathan said...

1. Is 2009 the year of the dog? If so, you've picked a creative way to celebrate.

2. I can completely relate to everything this character went through to become a man.

3. Good Cuba Gooding Jr. tag.

Christopher said...

(because of Snow Dogs)

Carlton Farmer said...

I read Woodsong back in junior high. I remember liking it a whole lot.