We recently looked at the life and times of Gary Paulsen—an incredible author who has written a delightful body of work that has inspired many young adults to write their own stories of nature and survival.
I was thinking about his novel Hatchet recently, because it’s a really great summer book, but I know that story really well, and I might just hold off before I summarize and analyze that particular tale of rugged life lost in the Canadian wilderness.
Today, however, we are going to look at Dogsong, which is another popular novel by Paulsen, which has also had an incredible impact on young adults and the world of young-adult fiction.
Dogsong tells the tale of 14-year-old Russel Susskit, who, after falling out of love with modern society (and government homes), decides to leave his Inuit village in search of a “song” for himself, just as his ancestors once did. His village was plagued with the modern “necessities” driven into his family’s culture by outside missionaries, including Christianity and smoking.
Before leaving, Russel speaks with Oogruk, who is an old Eskimo who still clings to the old Inuit ways of living. The old man tells Russel of old Inuit traditions, even the search for individual songs that were crushed out of the culture by the missionaries. After a time (which includes Russel moving in with the old traditionalist), Russel is told to go North until he finds his own song, and it is through his travels with Oorgruk’s sled dogs, that Russel finds his calling in life and a comfortability in the world.
Toward the end of Russel’s journey, he is confronted with a near-death, frozen pregnant woman, Nancy, who needs help during a vicious snowstorm. He helps her and finds her cover in an abandoned shack; after nursing her back to health, he eventually hunts a polar bear for food. When the woman gives birth, the child is stillborn, which profoundly effects Russel. Seeking medical attention, he takes Nancy to a village on the coast and ends his journey, having bonded with his sled dogs and finding a deeper, more traditional purpose.
Dogsong was written while Gary Paulsen was preparing for his first Iditarod and was published in 1985. Pauslen said that the story came to him during that 1983 Iditarod.
“It was – an Eskimo boy asked me to teach him about dogs,” he said in an NPR interview with Terry Gross. “And I thought then of a book about an Eskimo boy using a dog team to find his heritage. And I wrote the book, and then it won a Newbery honor. And that kind of – everything took off then” (Gross).
It was published in 1986 and was awarded the Newbery Honor in 1986.
Much or Paulsen’s work is categorized by the harsh nature of the wilds and of hardships. Hatchet, for instance, is an unflinching look at survival, cause and effect, and problem and solution. Dogsong is much of the same.
On his father’s smoking and coughing, the protagonist thinks: “The sound tore at Russel more than at his father. It meant something that did not belong on the coast of the sea in a small Eskimo village. The coughing came from Outside, came from the tobacco which came from Outside and Russell hated it” (Paulsen).
Russel’s musings on his hatred of his everyday life stems from the cause of missionaries and the effect it has had on his community. Religion hangs on his walls (literally), and his own father turns to a god that Russel doesn’t understand for help. In other words, Russel has a problem with how the world lives around him and the solution eludes him, because the traditional ways are no longer in existence, replaced by false theism.
Later, after Russel has moved in with Oogruk, he searches for meaning—an answer to his problem. In addition to his problems with the world he lives in as a child, he is also a poor hunter, so he studies to hunt small game even while other problems lay ahead. “So he made meat. Light meat. That’s what Oogruk called it. And it was good meat, as far as it went. The small birds tasted sweet and were tender and soft…But the dogs needed heavy meat, heavy red meat and fat or they could not work…” (Paulsen).
Russel loves the idea—the romanticized idea—of his Inuit tradition, but finds that the practical nature of the old way of life is challenging. His stoicism drives him forward in the face of ugliness and danger.
Nevertheless, Russel truly finds the beauty of nature and of the hunt later when he travels north. He soon learns that the beauty of the land is only sterilized by its willingness to kill. Oogruk, dead of old age, prompts Russel to find his “song” in the frozen lands where his people used to thrive. “It was hard to believe the beauty of that torn and forlorn place. The small mountains—large hills, really—were sculpted by the wind in shapes of rounded softness, and the light …” The contrast of danger and beauty is effective in this story, as it illuminates the reality of nature: it is wholesome to look at and wonder, but utterly dangerous for the uninitiated (see To Build a Fire).
Meanwhile, the dreams Russel stomachs during his journey mirrors his frustrations and struggles and gives him some insight into his own problems. These dreams, whether cause and effect or problem and solution, revolve around the struggles of nature and mirror Russel’s own journey, providing him with solutions and ways to live and thrive with his new traditions.
We can learn a lot from this book, and not necessarily in solely the rejection of modern amenities; but it doesn’t hurt to look at it that way. Our rejection of the niceties of the modern world may in fact allow us a deeper relationship with ourselves and our past traditions. As an urban contrast, My Dinner with Andre (1981) deals with a similar idea.
Consider this: Russel does not have to deal with the traumas associated with social media and our algorithm-based society, which is less reliant on tradition and reflection and more consumed with selfish pursuits of personal idolatry. His father’s pursuit of a new religion for answers throws aside the historical importance of the Inuit society—the way they used to live—in pursuit of this new way. However, it stands in contrast to what the community needs to survive. Sure, Russel’s village hunts seals, but they do not engage with nature as they once did, as their ancestors once did, to survive.
When the missionaries and the new religion leave, what are they left with?
In this question, we can understand Russel’s need for his culture and the culture of his ancestors. Russel’s rejection of this modernity allows him to touch base with his history and with his soul.
In the closing poem of Dogsong, Paulsen, or Russel, tells us, “Come, see my dogs. / With them I ran, ran north to the sea. / I stand by the sea and I sing. / I sing of my hunts / and of Oogruk” (Paulsen).
Gross, Terry. “Remembering Gary Paulsen, author of ‘Dogsled’ and ‘Hatchet.’” NPR. Oct., 20th, 2021. Web.
Paulsen, Gary. Dogsong. Simon and Schuster. 1985. Print.