48 pages 1 hour read

Dogsong

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1985

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Dogsong, first published in 1985, is a young adult novel by American author Gary Paulsen, who wrote Dogsong while he was training his dog sled team for his first Iditarod run. It was awarded the Newbery Honor Award in 1986. Paulsen, who was a popular author of young adult and children’s contemporary literature, is best known for books in the coming-of-age genre, often dealing with surviving the wilderness and embracing nature. He authored more than 200 novels, as well as short stories, plays, and magazine articles.

Paulsen was an avid outdoorsman who divided his time between Alaska, New Mexico, Minnesota, and the Pacific. He was author of three Newbery Honor titles—Dogsong, Hatchet, and The Winter Room—and the 1997 winner of the American Library Association’s Margaret Edwards Award for his lifetime work in writing for teens.

While the book uses the term “Eskimo” throughout to describe the protagonist’s indigenous Arctic culture, this guide instead uses the term “Inuit,” in line with modern usage.

Plot Summary

Dogsong opens with Russel Susskit, a 14-year-old Inuit boy, waking up in his bunk in the government-issued house he lives in with his father in the Alaskan Arctic. They spend their winters in a developed settlement and their summers in a fishing camp. White missionaries introduced their modern culture, including tobacco, television, and religion, to the Inuit people many years ago. Russel’s father has forgotten most of the traditional ways of life and is now a devout Christian. Russel feels unsettled and unhappy. He is depressed by his father’s smoker’s cough and by the noise and smell of imported snowmachines.

When Russel’s father notices that his son is sad, he recommends that Russel talk to Oogruk, an old Inuit who still lives the “old way,” to seek spiritual guidance. Bringing an offering of caribou heads to Oogruk’s traditional Inuit house, Russel learns about how life used to be before the missionaries came. Oogruk is the only person in the village who still owns a team of sled dogs, and he tells Russel about an old, blind Inuit friend of his who traveled the wilderness with a team of sled dogs that served as his eyes. He also tells Russel that the heart of Inuit culture, the Inuit songs, died after the arrival of white missionaries. The missionaries preached that song and dance were sinful and introduced the concept of hell. Therefore, this fundamental part of Inuit tradition, the development and sharing of individuals’ songs, was extinguished by fear, and most people converted to Christianity.

Oogruk teaches Russel that every person has their own song and each person must discover it for themselves. Russel moves in with Oogruk, who becomes Russel’s mentor, often imparting knowledge when Russel is in a trance-like state after eating. Russel learns how to guide Oogruk’s dogs and how to hunt the “old way” using only handmade traditional weapons. Russel becomes progressively more comfortable living in the traditional ways. He feels as if he is finally home. When Oogruk senses that Russel is ready, Oogruk tells him that he shouldn’t return to the village. Rather, he should take the sled and dog team and travel north for as long as it takes to find his song. Oogruk, who is very old, feels that he can die in peace knowing the Inuit traditions have been passed on through Russel. Russel is worried about Oogruk, but he agrees. As he heads out into unfamiliar territory, Russel is struck by the beauty of the harsh Arctic environment and the variety of wildlife. As his solitary journey continues, Russel has increasingly vivid dreams each night. He dreams of himself as an older man with a family, living the old way with what the Arctic provides. As time goes on, he and the dogs develop a strong bond, and Russel starts to feel as if they’re part of him.

Russel and the dogs continue their journey, and Russel continues to have powerful, surreal dreams of a future that could be. Along the way, the dreams and reality begin to merge. One day, he notices snowmachine tracks in the snow. He finds an abandoned snowmachine and small footprints leading away from it. Tracking the prints during a vicious storm, his dogs eventually find an unconscious pregnant woman. Taking her to safety, Russel builds a shelter and revives and warms her. She wakes up, and Russel sees that she is the woman from his dreams. She explains that her name is Nancy and she was exiled from her village after becoming pregnant. The missionaries condemned her, and she was forced to leave. She asks to stay with him, so they travel north together, running past game until they have run out of food. Desperate to find food, Russel leaves Nancy in their tent and goes to hunt with his dogs. Just as he is about to lose all hope, Russel and the dogs come across a polar bear, foretold in a dream in which the bear was depicted as a mammoth. Russel kills the bear, mirroring what he saw in the dream. Russel returns to Nancy with food just in time, and she soon goes into labor, delivering a stillborn baby. Nancy’s health deteriorates, so Russel takes her to a coastal village for medical help.

Russel’s journey of self-realization is complete, and he has his song. It is the song of his bond with his dogs, a bond so deep that his dogs are part of every aspect of his life, including his children and his wife—it is his Dogsong.

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