Customer Reviews: Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod
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on March 10, 2004
I made the grave mistake of trying to read this book while on a public bus. It wasn't long before I realized the folly in this, as I repeatedly had to stifle the wild guffaws that threatened to pour forth without my consent. The other passengers probably came to the conclusion that I was either very sick or slightly deranged as I rocked back and forth in my seat and tried to pretend that I was, in fact, merely coughing. Gary Paulsen has offered us one of the most hilarious accounts of running the Iditarod that I have ever come across.
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.
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on April 28, 1997
Winterdance by Gary Paulsen is an absolutely fascinating and entertaining depiction about how one man lives out his dream of running in the Iditarod sled-dog race. From the moment we meet Gary and his dog team in a winter storm in Minnesota till the time he gets dragged down Dalzell Gorge in Alaska, his optimism, his observations and his relationship with his dogs keeps one glued to the pages of this book.

Paulsen's personal account is easy reading in that he does not dwell in complex literary style, use large words or go overboard in describing deep characters or flowery scenery. He merely relates what he sees and feels. Often his mission is just staying alive and attached to his sled. His descriptions about his summer training with a bicycle and a car body leave you laughing out loud and in wonder about his perseverance and dedication to his dream" You look like a toy", Ruth (his wife) said as I came back from being dragged out of the yard on my face, hanging on to the overturned rig. " A big doggie toy...."Out of the first twenty runs, I didn't once leave the yard in one piece." His sense of humor is overwhelming as he tackles training a dog team without any instruction, without a book or manual but only his desire to run dogs to keep him going. `In subsequent runs I left the yard on my face, my ass, my back, my belly. I dragged for a mile, two miles, three miles. I lost the team eight, ten times; walked twelve, seventeen, once forty-some miles looking for them. The rig broke every time we ran....""I once left the yard with wooden matches in my pocket and had them ignite as I was being dragged past the door of the house, giving me the semblance of a meteorite, screaming something about my balls being on fire at Ruth, who was laughing so hard she couldn't stand." Picturing this scene has got to put a smile on your face even if you can suppress an outward giggle.

In between the excitement, thrill and adventure of the Iditarod is the story of the dogs. Each dog has it's own personality, each has it's role in the team. One learns to respect the lead dog and the decisions they must make for " their choices can literally mean life or death for the team and driver, often when the driver cannot see what is happening." However you often wonder why keep a dog like Devil who won't hesitate to pick a fight, bite the hand that feeds it or cause chaos within the team. Yet he is integral to the whole dog team and Gary reflects about the "bond" between driver and dogs as follows. " Dogs rarely violate this relationship(the bond)-virtually never. Devil may bite me, might kill other dogs, but by god he pulled and would die pulling and that was a kind of love. I have watched them work, always in awe-and not a little love- and sometimes what they are, out ahead of me, the curve from me up through the sled and gangline into the dogs, all of us moving for some new horizon, sometimes it becomes more, becomes spiritual, religious." It is these reflections interspersed between the gruelling physical pain of running eleven hundred and eighty miles in bitter cold, gale force wind and over terrain that makes the moon seem civilized that makes this book so special.

Paulsen finishes the race, and we find out he runs it again. But in the end he is advised "You'll have to lead a normal life". A line on the final page sums up what the Iditarod and this fine piece of writing is all about. Gary says "How can it be to live without the dogs?" For those who love animals, have had a chance to work and play with dogs or for those who just like a good book written from the heart and soul, Winterdance is a must read.
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This book packs quite a punch. Each chapter ended with this reader wincing for the author, who had just spent the night stumbling through a Minnesota swamp, his eyes almost swollen shut from mosquito bites, searching for his runaway dog team, or had been blown down an Alaskan mountainside with his team, in the midst of a blinding snowstorm.
Not to mention the five-skunk night.
It takes a great deal of physical as well as mental toughness to train for the Iditarod, much less run a team of half-wild dogs in the actual race.
"Winterdance" reminds me of Algernon Blackwood's "Wendigo:" in both stories men are caught by the spirit of the Great Northern Wilderness, and perish or almost perish. I think the most telling moment in Paulsen's book comes when he runs his team to the end of his trapline---and then keeps on going in the dead of a Minnesota winter, just to see what lies beyond the next hill. His wife's intuition to call out a search team was correct, even though Paulsen eventually did turn back. The 'Wendigo' or wanderlust had almost captured his soul.
It also reminds me of "Call of the Wild." Like Jack London, Paulsen has a laconic, fluid writing style, and both authors include the Wilderness itself as one of their major characters. I won't say that either man subscribed to Blackwood's weird brand of pantheistic mysticism, but read how Paulsen slowly bonds with his dogs--and other wild animals.
This book is also a grand dog story with more pratfalls than a "Three Stooges" movie. The author spent many a night on his backside, being dragged down a dirt road (or worse, through a second-growth forest) by his lusty team. Running the Iditarod takes a very special madness, and Paulsen endured moose attacks, blizzards, dog bites, and too many helpings of moose chili to draw us into his very beautiful and brutal world.
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on May 3, 2004
Winterdance is a book about a crazed fool who tries to run the Iditarod without any real knowledge of the race and very little experience with running dog sled teams. This makes Gary Paulsen's trip across Alaska hilarious and entertaining. One example of this is toward the beginning of the book when he falls off his sled during training. His snow hook catches in his boot and the dogs drag him around. During the turns the dogs crack the whip, and he "established intimate relations with trees". Paulsen talks you through his entire trip across Alaska in this same funny way.
Winterdance is told through Gary Paulsen's eyes but is not limited to him as the main character. Some of the other main characters include but are not limited to Cookie, his female lead dog, Devil, his crazy mean male dog that eats anything that moves or at least takes a bite out of it, and Max, male his weakest link.
Normally I only read fantasy books, but I found that Gary Paulsen's Winterdance both funny and entertaining enough to please me.
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on January 3, 1999
My co-worker gave me this book with a note that said "read this, you will laugh out loud!". So, as a dog lover I read it. Sure enough, I laughed right out loud and had to get myself together to call my co-worker to laugh with her. The book was so well written, so concise and yet so full of everything it is to know dogs. The Iditarod must truly be a race of crazy people, but I sure enjoyed my trip with Gary Paulsen. Now I want to read more of his books! Everyone with dog should read this book! I loved it!
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on February 28, 2002
Gary Paulsen is a master writer insofar as the young male set goes-he has written a long series of stories that have captured the imagination of young men everywhere, from his fictional wildlife adventure tales like Hatchett to his entertaining Culpeper Adventure series, Paulsen has a knack for connecting with a young male audience.
He was my son's all time favorite author growing up and, last time I visited him at college, noticed he had a copy of Hatchet on his bookshelf at school. I asked him about it and he said something to the effect that his room didn't feel like home without it there. How many writers can affect people like that?
Winterdance is a bit of a departure for Paulsen. As sott of younger male's version of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, the book is a memoir telling the story of Paulsen's entry into the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska. Funny, sad, poignant and riveting, I read it and enjoyed it very much. I also had my son read it and he loved it as well. I rather suspect it's on his shelf next to Hatchett.
You can't really go wrong with Paulsen, but this is one of his very best works, which makes this one of the best works ever for this genre.
Want to help your son, nephew, whomever to love to read while making your son, nephew, whoever very happy? Give them this book.
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on December 19, 2000
There I was, sitting next to my husband, reading "Winterdance", and all of a sudden I would break out laughing uproariously! My husband would look over at me and say, 'now what"? So then I would try to tell him about the episode I was reading, and sometimes I couldn't get it all out because I was laughing so hard. Finally, after many outbursts by me, he said he wanted to read it when I was finished. Of course, he got hooked and also agreed with me that it IS the funniest book we have read. I went out and bought 6 copies to give as holiday gifts last year. So we have turned many friends and family members into Gary Paulsen book readers. Paulsen's descriptions of the predicaments he would get into with the training and running of his dogs are so vivid, you feel as though you are there with him, and can't stop laughing. I highly recommend this to adults, as well as children - it is an easy read - and a book you will want to read again!
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on July 15, 2003
I wasn't real sure about this book when I took it out of the library. I didn't know what an Iditarod was, and wasn't sure I cared to know. However, from the first few pages on, I couldn't put the book down. I like dogs, but I wouldn't consider myself a dog lover. However, after reading this book, I came away with a different view of animals, especially dogs, and the magnitude of training for this big race. Gary takes the reader from the time he decides to sell everything he and his family own, and move to Minnesota to live off the land, by running traplines, and hunting his own food, and to train dogs for the Iditarod race. The reader is taken on a great adventure from the time he begins training the dogs to the race itself. He describes his adventures with such humor and detail, that I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions, and actually there were times when I felt as though I was on the sled with him, taking the ride of my life. Many times I believe I felt his pain as he describes slamming into trees, being dragged on his face by the dogs for miles, and skunked six times in one night. This is truly a good book, and I definitely will pick up another book by Gary Paulsen to read soon in my lesure time. I highly recommend this book fo all to read.
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on April 18, 2002
After my sister read me one excerpt of the book, I knew I had to read it. This is the story of a man who decided to run the iditarod, somewhat blindly. From beginning to end, Paulsen wraps you into his insane sounding world of training and running the race. The chapter "Major Wrecks" had me lauging out loud, despite the injuries he was suffering, only because Paulsen freely admits his naivette throughout the book. Conversely, he brought me close to tears when describing some of the horrible things that happen, both to dogs and mushers during the race.
If you love dogs, you must read this book.
If you're thinking about running the Iditarod, you must read this book.
If you like a good story about true events, mixing humor, drama, and sadness, you must read this book.
The entire book is so well written that I had trouble allowing myself to put it down and get some sleep. My only complaint is that he hinted at but never told the reader at what point in the race he had been mistakenly reported dead for 2 hours.
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on May 3, 2004
I have always been interested in dogs and sports involving them, so I thought this would be a good book. I was right. WINTERDANCE was a humorous, easy-to-read story (Which I finished in two days). The plot is fast-paced, and this is not the kind of story where you get one page into it and quit. It's about a dog musher who decides to run the Iditarod. He doesn't realize what he's getting himself into and what a serious commitment it is. He survives the tough training, but it is nothing compared to the real race.Before he finally crosses the finish line, he has been victim of a moose attack, had hallucinations, fallen off a cliff, gotten lost, and almost frozen to death! It keeps you on the edge of your seat.
On the down side, this book draws a rather abrupt, and not very satisfying conclusion. A few parts are poorly written (Although most of in is well written). It also has profanity. Lots of it. This book is definitely not for very young children. But overall, it is a very satisfying read.
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