I was laughing so hard tears were leaking out of the corners of my eyes. There were several wet spots on my pillow. Husband was eyeballing me from across the way. The look clearly stated, “What the….?” I couldn’t even speak coherently to tell him what was going on. The only discernible phrase I uttered was, “five out of six skunks!” It was clear that after laughing like this I would not be able to sleep for a while. Kissing husband on the cheek, I gathered my book and glass of water, and rolled out of bed.
Much of the time I spent reading Winterdance was split between laughter and gasping. It isn’t really a humor book, though much of it will make you laugh, at his idiocy, ignorance, and audacity. It is a type of memoir, and there are some serious and scary parts in it. A solid half of it, or more, is pretty dramatic. However, Gary Paulsen’s writing is spare, simple. It’s similar to the Alaskan landscape he spends most of this book traveling through. It is exactly this, this feeling that he is just stating fact, that makes his actions, his feelings, his pure ignorance and courage compelling. And down right hilarious at times. Well that, and the dogs.
Winterdance is Paulsen’s account of his preparation for, and running of, his first Iditarod. He ran it the first time in 1983, I believe. From what I can tell, he attempted it at least one more time before health issues put an end to his dog sledding days. Much has changed about the race since he ran it, but I have a feeling that the important parts, the human experience parts, are still the same. The landscape and the weather probably haven’t changed much either.
If you’ve attended grade school in the U.S. within the last 20 years or so, you have probably read a few Gary Paulsen books, especially if you are male. I know in my little pocket of the world most students read Hatchet sometime between 5th and 7th grade. It is often a required reading book, or a book the teacher reads to the class. Paulsen is known for his survivalist, coming of age novels for young adults. The Brian series, of which Hatchet is the first, is especially popular. These are great books to introduce to reluctant readers, especially boys who are into nature activities like hunting, fishing, and camping.
In this vein (forgive me, my teacher is coming out), I think this book could be a great resource in classrooms. Now, it is not an adolescent literature book. There are obscenities in it, and some very brief nudity. However, once you’ve read it, I think you will agree, that each time a curse word is used it is…ahem…justified. Yes. I mean, he is running dogs in the Alaskan wilderness and facing life threatening situations. I doubt many of us would get through it without a justifiable obscenity or two. Also, frequently he uses them when quoting others. I must assume that dog sled runners tend towards the use of obscenities as a result of their job description. Anyway, you probably don’t want your 5th through 7th graders reading it without a chaperone. With high schoolers though, you could use it successfully. Just bleep out the few curse words you encounter.
This book could be used, not just in English or writing classrooms, but science, geography, and social science classes as well. I could write several blog posts on its use in Language Arts concerning setting as a character, style, point of view, and voice to name a few. However, Paulsen provides some great descriptions about weather and landscape that could be pulled, read, and discussed with students studying the tundra, frozen icecaps, and many other nature science subjects that I probably missed. There are a lot of ideas, but I am already running a bit long on this post. Let’s just say, this book has teaching capabilities across the curriculum.
I don’t think everyone will enjoy this book as much as I did, however it is a great choice for those of you looking for an easy and interesting nonfiction. It has plenty of funny parts to balance out some of the life threatening and serious situations Paulsen finds himself in. It is a great reading experience and I highly recommend it, if only for the skunk part.