There’s something to be said for reading seasonal books as the year goes on, but it’s also fun to mix and match with abandon. Take, for instance, John Smelcer’s novel Lone Wolves (Leapfrog Press, September 2013), which proved an entertaining escape from the summer heat to a frozen Alaskan winter.
Sixteen-year-old Deneena “Denny” Yazzie feels like an outcast in her small Alaskan village. She is part Native Alaskan, part white, with telltale blue eyes broadcasting her heritage. Though her father left years ago, Denny shares a deep bond with her grandfather, who teaches her their dying language and encourages her love of dogsled racing. Meanwhile, her peers ridicule her old-fashioned interests as they fall into destructive behaviors and dream of leaving the village to embrace city life. After her grandfather dies, Denny enters the Great Race (the Iditarod in all but name) in hopes of winning enough prize money to keep her grandfather’s sled dogs. As she works odd jobs to pay for her transportation and entry fees, Denny befriends a lone wolf, whom she names Tazlina (“Taz” for short), and trains him to be her lead dog in the Great Race.
Smelcer ambitiously juggles several themes, mainly tradition versus modernity and the importance of preserving one’s cultural heritage. Himself a Native Alaskan of the Ahtna tribe, Smelcer puts great care and detail into his depiction of traditional customs and daily activities as well as the current issues that plague the young people of these isolated communities. Some plot points tested my suspension of disbelief (How can a teenage girl train a wild wolf to be her lead dog in two months? Would a musher with so little experience do so well in her first Great Race?) but those momentary concerns were quickly brushed away by Smelcer’s adept focus on Denny’s coming of age and the illuminating glimpse of Native Alaskan cultures.