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17 december 2014
Dogsong is young-adult adventure played out at the highest possible testosterone level.
One of Gary Paulsen's several Newbery Honor novels, Dogsong takes place on the cusp of a vanishing culture. Young Russel, a 14-year-old whom Paulsen unselfconsciously calls an "Eskimo," is depressed, and by more than the usual adolescent woes. He feels out of touch with a modern Alaskan way of life based on snowmachines, government-provided shelters, and storebought food. His father's Christian religion holds no appeal. The traditional male-hunter culture, as personified by his blind old mentor Oogruk, holds a great deal of appeal. But is it really possible, in the 20th century, to make your living with a traditional sled and dogteam, hunting with a bow and arrow across the sparse ecosystem of the Arctic winter?
Dogsong is a fictional experiment in imagining that possibility. Like many a young-man-in-the-wilderness narrative, Paulsen's story presents life in the wild as a harrowing series of challenges, but one that any reasonably plucky 14-year-old can cope with. Russel kills ptarmigan and caribou, and works his way up to slaughtering a murderous polar bear. Along the way, fueled by hunger, cold, darkness, and isolation, he dreams of a mystical past where his ancestors sought even bigger game: the prehistoric Arctic mammoth.
Domination of animals is the main theme. Russel couldn't survive out on the tundra without his sled dogs. Yet they are far from pets, and he's utterly unsentimental about them. For all the organic rhetoric in Dogsong, and for all its distrust of machines, its dogs lack personality and individuation. They are basically machines that have to be fed and smacked around in order to get them to obey their driver's will. They are more intelligent than snowmachines (they seem to have a built-in GPS), but they similarly run out of juice at crucial moments, and they have to be tweaked to get them into good running order.
Paulsen thereby avoids sentimentalizing animals, and human relations with them. This is distinctly not a boy-and-his-dog novel. It's not a pro-Western tract, either. But neither is is a "posthuman" novel, and that dates it to the 1980s rather than the 2010s. The focus is all on Russel, his coming of age, his tapping into traditions that have allowed humans to master the wilderness.
Paulsen, Gary. Dogsong. 1985. New York: Aladdin [Simon & Schuster], 2007. PZ .P2843Do