This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
Fourteen-year-old Russel Susskit feels something is wrong, but he can’t put his finger on it. The Eskimo boy lives with his father in a box-like house built by the government. He hates hearing the loud roar of snow machines and his father’s coughing. He detests that everything smells like diesel fuel and cigarette smoke. Russel’s father notices his son’s anxiety. His father says that when he needs help with something he doesn’t understand, he gets that help from Jesus. Since he knows Russel doesn’t follow Jesus, he sends his son to the town shaman, an old blind man named Oogruk.
Oogruk tells Russel that before the missionaries came and started talking about Jesus, people had their own life songs, some which even triggered natural phenomena. He instructs Russel to return to the old ways of his people in order to discover his song. Russel goes into a trance at Oogruk’s and discovers that he needs to learn to drive Oogruk’s dogsled. He stays with the old man and works with the dogs. One day, Oogruk rides with Russel on the sled. He says it is his time to go. Oogruk makes Russel leave him sitting on the ice, where the old man dies.
Russel begins a long journey of self-discovery as he drives the dogs through harrowing weather conditions. He has an ongoing dream about a man he realizes is him. He says the dream continues to fold over on itself, mirroring some of the situations he faces on his trip. In the dream, the man leaves his family in search of food, kills a wooly mammoth with a spear and returns to find that his family has starved to death. On his real journey, Russel finds a pregnant, nearly frozen girl named Nancy, who has come out to the tundra to kill herself. He revives her, but they are almost out of food. So he leaves her to hunt, and he goes many days without finding anything.
At his most hopeless moment, he and the dogs sense a polar bear and follow its tracks. Russel battles the polar bear, killing it with a spear. He rushes back to Nancy, who is barely alive. She delivers a stillborn child soon after. Despite the pain and sadness they both experience, Russel feels victorious that he’s been able to keep Nancy alive. She has physical complications after losing the baby, so Russel drives the dogs hard to get her to a village where she can be treated. They reach the far north and see villages ahead. The book ends with a poem, Russel’s song, about his life before and after running with the dogs.
Russel’s father has pictures on the walls of Jesus dying and carrying the Cross. They’re all cut out of religious magazines people have sent his father from outside their town. He’s tried to explain Jesus to Russel, but the boy doesn’t understand. His father says Jesus was the Son of God and was meant to suffer for our sins. Russel can’t think of anything bad enough that’s happened to make a man stick thorns in his head. He does like the fact that his father doesn’t drink anymore because of Jesus. When his father sees Russel is distressed, he explains that he seeks help from Jesus when he lacks understanding.
Russel goes into a trance at the shaman’s house, and the old man teaches him how to live as his people did in the past. Russel learns rituals, including thanking animals he kills for their meat. As Russel watches the colors of the sky, he says he knows that often the wind dies and goes back to its mother. Then the cold comes down from the father of ice. He says many of his people believe the northern lights are the souls of deadborn children dancing in heaven. He later feels that the cold and darkness are like a ghost from the underworld that will take him down where demons will tear strips off of him.
Oogruk says their people used to have songs and dances that could control nature and animals. He blames the missionaries for taking the songs away. When the missionaries came, he says, the Eskimo people began believing they would go to hell for their singing and dancing. They hadn’t known about hell before, but suddenly they were informed of the pain, fire and demons, which would tear strips of meat off of them. Oogruk says that when the people gave up their songs for fear of hell, they gave up their insides as well. He tells Russel that maybe if people lived like they used to live, the songs would come back. A passage written by an old Eskimo woman at the start of a chapter also talks about the great power the shamans had before the church came. She says they could make stones and snow and beads talk.
Russel’s father has taken care of him since his mother left with a white trapper. He tries to tell his son about Jesus and help the boy learn what is missing in his life. Oogruk the shaman teaches Russel the ways of his people, allowing the boy to live with him. He trains Russel using a dogsled team and urges the boy to go on a long journey of self-discovery.
Russel’s father talks about a time in his childhood when a boat full of men died walrus fishing. He says the women cut themselves deeply and bled in grief. A number of scenes depict people and animals in survival situations. Dogs dig their teeth into animal carcasses. They eat, puke and eat their vomit. A polar bear takes a violent bite out of the back of a dog, killing it and spraying gore everywhere.
Russel sometimes whips the dogs harshly to drive them on. In his dream, Russel thrusts a spear in the back of a nearly frozen dog’s head to kill it. In his dream, Russel also spears a mammoth, mirroring the real Russel spearing a polar bear. When the woman and children in Russel’s dream are starving to death and have eaten everything possible, the mother “sits and fingers the strangulation cord.”
In one of the chapter beginnings, an old Eskimo talks about being born from cold white cliffs that were his mother’s thighs. Nancy says she became pregnant without meaning to. When told by the missionaries this was a sin, she went out into the tundra to die. Her baby is born early and stillborn. Nancy writhes and experiences great pain during the slow expulsion of the fetus. She asks Russel to take the baby away so she doesn’t have to look at it.
Smoking: Russel’s father smokes a lot of cigarettes. Russel hates the harsh coughing sounds his father makes in the morning as a result of his smoking.
Cannibalism: An old Eskimo tells a story of a time when there was no meat and they had eaten all the dogs. They ask their old mother if they can eat her if the deer don’t come back. He says they would have, but fortunately for them and her, the deer came back.
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