First novel sure to make a splashKantner, winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize for this debut novel, was born and raised in northern Alaska; his feelings for the land and the animals that populate it are palpable, spilling onto every page of Ordinary Wolves.
His narrator Cutuk, white but given an Eskimo name, is five when the novel opens, the youngest child of Abe and a mother who left shortly after he was born. Abe, an artist, moved the family from Chicago to an igloo on the vast Alaskan tundra; Cutuk's older brother Jerry and sister Iris remember the city, cars and lawns, but Cutuk has never seen them. Cutuk matter-of-factly describes their daily routine the floorboards of their igloo covered with caribou hairs and black mouse turds, their exhaustive hauling of river ice to melt for washing and bathing, the constant hunt for food and their home-schooling, with books delivered by the mail plane. As he grows up, Cutuk begins to understand how different he really is from mainstream America, certainly, but even from the mostly Eskimo population of Takunak, the nearest village. The family's best friends in town are Eskimo, and Abe usually ignores the occasional town decree forbidding whites to own sled dogs or set under-ice fishing nets. After Jerry leaves for Fairbanks, and Iris follows two years later for college, Cutuk is "stunningly lonesome." He wonders why his mother left "fewer mouse turds in the oatmeal?" and if he will ever leave himself. At 22, he embarks on a visit to Anchorage; Kantner's beautifully subtle writing illuminates the conundrum Cutuk faces as he meets civilization for the first time and weighs the good and the bad of what he has missed growing up. He calls Iris, and tells her that the city makes him feel "wrapped in plastic." Jerry visits, and Cutuk realizes how much his brother has changed they act "like two sled dogs that might have once been litter mates."Interspersed throughout this thought-provoking story are short chapters written in the voices of wolves, either hunted or hunting. Through their eyes Kantner movingly underlines the passion he feels for the Arctic wilderness, to which his alter ego Cutuk eventually returns.