Book Review || Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Alaskan Dog-Racing by Gary Paulsen

I'm not certain what I was expecting when I started to read 'Winterdance' by Gary Paulsen, although it's probably an expectation more along the lines of an educational look at what it takes to indulge in professional dogsledding. The truth of the novel is very far from this and I rather closed the book with the feeling that I had learnt something infinitely more valuable from it.

Paulsen is known as a children's author and has won several awards for his writing. I have not read any of his other books, however, and upon finishing it and doing some research about him I discovered this other life - which was actually a bit of a shock for me because of the intensity and passion he showed for dogsledding. They say all writers are a little bit crazy, and Paulsen would then fit into this stereotype perfectly, for no one would embark on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race unless they were a little bit (or a lot) crazy.

From the very first chapter, I was  not only gripped by Paulsen's fine memory, flowing writing, and self-deprecating humour, but also the connection he forms with his dogs, with nature, with the landscape that he suffers in and for.

We all look for certain themes when we are reading books and I think one of my current focal points is nature and humankind's lost connection to it. I sometimes think I would give anything to move out into the country, into one of those little hermits in the forests deep in Siberia and simply live quietly, living on the land as we were meant to. Perhaps this is why the biggest theme I have taken away from 'Winterdance' is this lost connection with nature and how we need to expose ourselves to it before we find it again.

Paulsen experiences this through his connection with his dogs and this enlightenment leads him to think more about the 'sanctity of life', as he puts it [32]. He notices his own change of heart through little anecdotes, such as a story of ranch cows forming a roster among themselves where one cow stays behind to protect the calves while the others find water [32]. His new connection to nature also comes through short encounters with creatures of the forest: a chance encounter with a beaver all alone on a frozen lake that inspires the dogs to race off towards it simply to see what it is [34]; the meeting with Marge, a wild coyote who was 'beautiful in a way only wild things can be beautiful', follows the team for several days, and stuns Paulsen with her use of tools to catch grouse - something only humans and apes were once believed to do [43]; a chickadee sitting atop his hood, sharing his meals; his lead dog Cookie's very clear appreciation of the beauty of sunrises [141].

The intensity of his new-found connection is revealed when he discovers a deer caught in a trapper's snare. He thinks it dead and removes the snare, stubbornly attempting to rub the hair around the deer's neck flat again, trying to 'make up for what had happened to her' in his anger. The deer was alive and could have killed him with her sharp hooves but merely left, looking back at him [57].

Similar anecdotes and experiences litter the novel - some inspiring silent smiles, laughing out loud, or stifled gasps - but one thing is certain - reading this novel, living vicariously through Paulsen's experiences, will leave your mind echoing his sentiment:
...I thought my whole life had changed, that my basic understanding of values had changed, that I wasn't sure if I'd ever recover, that I had seen God and he was a dog-man and that nothing, ever, would be the same for me again.
I have never been more grateful for a book I picked from the pile at a charity store than now, and this novel will leave you questioning your values and beliefs, urge you to reconnect with nature, and remember that God will not come to you - you must find him for yourself.

14 August 2017: When I started to read the novel, I was very concerned for the dogs. While Paulsen was very interested in the health and safety of his dogs, it was clear that some of the other racers were not. Regardless, dogs who race in such a contest, over such terrain, can surely not ever be the same again. There is a petition against the race on Peta if you're interested in signing it. Click here.

{Image credit: By Frank Kovalchek from Anchorage, Alaska, USA - The look of sheer determination - 2010 Iditarod Ceremonial start in Anchorage, AlaskaUploaded by Smooth_O, CC BY 2.0,}


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