I have been following the news releases on the 1,163-mile Anchorage-to-Nome Iditarod race for more than one reason. I appreciate the effort and cheer the race vicariously. (I can't imagine anyone in the snow that long withstanding such discomfort, sunshine-loving person that I am!)
It would be wonderful if Susan Butcher set a record of five-time winner. But most of all, I believe one of my favorite authors is also competing in the race. Gary Paulsen's new book, "Woodsong," is about the Iditarod, but it is also about the author, himself, with an insight that is sensitive, provocative and self-indulgent.Paulsen's previous books are full of adventure and lore of the North land. Those were books about what the author believed. But "Woodsong" is the author. It is a series of vignettes about his life in the Minnesota wilderness with his wife and son, where he ekes out a living and runs his sled dogs.
"Woodsong" is about life . . . "It is always possible to learn from dogs and in fact, the longer I'm with them the more I understand how little I know." . . . and Paulsen's chosen lifestyle: "I understand almost nothing about the woods until it was nearly too late. And that is strange because my ignorance was based on knowledge."
Each section, sometimes two or three pages, is packed with imagery humor, pathos and love of nature.
Paulsen's philosophy is the theme of the book as he learns from his dog, Storm, who "came to know me better than perhaps even my own family," and records the idiosyncrasies of the teams that ran thousands of miles for him. He tells of the death of that prized dog (and others) realizing the animals respond to the demise of a team member with a "death song, which sounds much like the rain song . . . "
But all the stories are not tender. He tells of a deer, fighting for its life, being torn to shreds by a pack of wolves, a gopher killed by a squirrel and he pledges that hunting, which he spent virtually all of his time doing, is wrong. "It was a hunter, a wild one, and an act of almost unbelievable violence that led me to understand all of it, and to try to learn from it without destroying it."
The readers of Paulsen's work have always realized his love of nature and his synchronized rhythm with it, but "Woodsong" is more than that. It is a confession of his weakness as he seeks wisdom and strength.
His final chapter records the 17 days of the Iditarod from preparation, rigorous training to the actual run. He describes the hallucinations, the state of exhaustion, the run area called the Burn, without snow, and ultimately his response as he sees the finish line: "I see the lights . . . twenty or more miles ahead and when I realize what they are, I stop the team." His hesitation confuses the dogs that clamor for the last stretch. "I do not understand why, but I do not . . . want to go in and finish the race."
He realizes his solitude and commune with being "alone on the planet" as a priceless thing and ". . . it becomes something you don't want to end - ever."
"Woodsong" is Paulsen at his best. While he packs the pieces with brute strength and tender touch, he allows us to see tenacity balanced with a vulnerability. He appears to master his difficulties and becomes a legend of the North but admits his affinity with nature . . . . "when it is all boiled down, I am nothing more and nothing less than any other animal in the woods . . . . "
Other works by Gary Paulsen include three Newbery Honor books: "Dogsong," "Hatchet" and "The Winter Room" as well as "Sentries," "Tracker," and "Dancing Girl."