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Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod Paperback – February 17, 1995
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- Format: Paperback
- Publication Date: 2/17/1995
- Pages: 272
- Reading Level: Age 14 and Up
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Parts of this book had me laughing out loud. If you appreciate dogs in any capacity, you'll enjoy that aspect of "Winterdance." Gary Paulsen does a great job of showing us what it really means to work and live with the dogs. He gives us a wonderful view of their personalities. He also brings the Alaskan wilderness to life in a personal way.
I didn't like the ending. The whole story is one man's experiences - which by nature are going to be self-centered - but the ending was a total wallow in self absorption. He didn't end with the Iditarod, or the dogs, or the thrill of accomplishment. He ended with his failing health and it adding absolutely nothing to the story.
There is a lot of foul language throughout the book. I'm sure it's all authentic, it's how the mushers talk, etc. But it wasn't necessary to get the feel and flavor of the Iditarod and it makes the book completely unsuitable for younger readers.
I'd like to give this one 2 1/2 stars, because I can recommend it to some people, but not others.
Living in Minnesota, Paulsen had a small team of five dogs that he used to work his traplines. Over time he became more and more entranced with mushing, until he eventually realized that wanted to, needed to, run the Iditarod - the 1,100+ mile dogsled race stretching across the state of Alaska between Anchorage and Nome. The first half of the book deals with his preparation for the race - finding more dogs, training the dogs, getting the right equipment, etc. We soon see that he has quite a bit to learn. Over the course of this training period, Paulsen finds himself attacked by dogs, run away with by dogs, and often spending many miles being dragged along on the ground behind his sled by dogs. He manages to break his sled repeatedly, get separated from his team, and one night, get sprayed by five different skunks in rapid succession. He is, in short, one of the least qualified of all possible Iditarod candidates.
The second half of the book takes us through the race itself. In the beginning, he makes every possible rookie mistake. He gets lost before even leaving the city of Anchorage, after putting the wrong animal in the lead-dog position:
"We went through people's yards, ripped down fences, knocked over garbage cans. At one point I found myself going through a carport and across a backyard with fifteen dogs and a fully loaded Iditarod sled. A woman standing over the kitchen sink looked out with wide eyes as we passed through her yard and I snapped a wave at her before clawing the handlebar once again to hang on while we tore down her picket fence when Wilson [the lead dog] tried to thread through a hole not much bigger than a housecat. And there is a cocker spaniel who will never come into his backyard again. He heard us coming and turned to bark just as the entire team ran over him; I flipped one of the runners up to just miss his back and we were gone, leaving him standing facing the wrong way barking at whatever it was that had hit him" (pg. 145).
Much of the first half of the race is a series of such uproarious follies. Unbeknownst to him at the time, the other mushers had voted Paulsen the least likely competitor to get out of Anchorage. But he eventually did, and he ultimately manages to muddle his way through the entire race. As the journey goes on, the book becomes a little more serious as we see Paulsen undergo a transformation. He learns about himself, about the dogs, and about life. He feels himself become one with the frozen world of the north, eventually feeling more at home there that he had with his wife and family in Minnesota.
There are sad parts, too. We see a beloved dog trampled to death by a moose before the first day is over. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurence. Moose do not yield the right-of-way to dog teams, and can be extremely dangerous when upset. We also see a maddened musher kill one of his own dogs in a fit of rage. Killing or abusing dogs during the race is strictly prohibited, and the man was duly disqualified, but I still found this the hardest part of the book to read.
'Winterdance' is a magnificent story of a man following his dream and gaining a wealth of knowledge about himself and the world. Paulsen's easy, self-deprecating humor and vivid verbal imagery bring the story to life. It is also a fast read - I finished the book in one day. I have rarely read anything that has made me laugh so hard, or that has moved me so much by the end. Growing up in Alaska, I always watched the Iditarod start in Anchorage. I've met some of the winning mushers. But Paulsen's story is entirely unique. He was not a race champion or mushing hero, but the rankest rookie out there. And yet he endears himself to our hearts. For any fan of dog mushing, wilderness survival stories, or both, I recommend this book without hesitation.
What also comes across though is the bond he forges with his dogs, especially Cookie, who seems to have a deep understand of Paulson, as well as what is expected of her as he trains; he describes her—and the bond he has with her—with great tenderness and devotion as they come to rely on each other during the course of the book.
Whether you love books about animals, books that make you laugh, books about the Iditarod... I would highly recommend this book. I've read a lot of books, and this is one of the best I've ever read.