Swallowed whole 

Relishing time in Seth Kantner's harsh Alaska

The Alaska Seth Kantner writes about in Swallowed by the Great Land: And Other Dispatches from Alaska's Frontier isn't the one of glossy travel magazines and calendar photography. His is rainy and muddy and cluttered with broken down vehicles and machinery. When the ground dries out, the landscape becomes either full of bugs or so cold and ice-covered that simply venturing outside will leave scabs of frostbite on one's face. Finally, most of the food the people who live there trade and eat with vigorous relish seems like fare that would turn most visitors green. With wit, a dry, self-deprecating humor and a whole lot of heart, Kantner nonetheless manages to keep this volume of 51 nonfiction essays from devolving into mere gross-out or hardship porn. That's because Kantner is a gifted storyteller.

Most of us came to know of Kantner via his 2004 debut novel, Ordinary Wolves. Wolves was the story of Cutuk, a young white man raised much like a traditional Native, who struggles to find his place between an ancient world being overrun by "civilization" and the modernity that threatens it. He followed the novel up in 2009 with Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska, a memoir that details how his own upbringing was the mirror reflecting the tale he told in Ordinary Wolves, as well as a showcase for his nature photography. Like his fictional protagonists, Kantner was raised in a sod igloo on the Arctic tundra by parents who had retreated there in the 1950s to live close to the land, as traditionally as possible. Home-schooled and educated in the arts of subsistence living, he attended both the University of Alaska and finally the University of Montana, where he received a bachelor's degree in journalism.

Swallowed essentially picks up where Porcupine leaves off. Kantner still makes his home in northwest Alaska with his wife and daughter, where he earns a living outside of writing as a commercial fisherman, teaching, and selling photographs. He hunts and gathers to feed his family, doing whatever he needs to avoid "a real job." This lifestyle is the framework on which Kantner hangs his anecdotal stories.

click to enlarge books_swallowed.jpg

Like in great fiction, it is the characters in Kantner's essays that make the book strong: Native elders who still spend their time alone on the tundra; outsiders ("commonly referred to as 'white people,'" Kantner writes, "even if they happened to be black, Asian, or otherwise") trying to fit in; and people Kantner grew up with who are now, like him, limping into middle-age in a place that isn't kind to growing old. The characters in these stories lend a drama and humor lacking in what could easily be a showcase for being tough and stoic. Kantner's love for the land and his community is apparent in every sentence, as is his concern about how he has chosen to raise his daughter, China.

"Maybe all the stuff I teach my daughter is backward," Kantner writes. "China's going off to boarding school back East next year. There are going to be brilliant mathematicians there, kids with Porsches probably, maybe future CEOs. I keep thinking about those million people a month moving to cities. And that private space flight. Where she's going, knowing how to gut a goose is bound to be pretty unimpressive."

This passage makes me smile. I spend an inordinate amount of time feeling exactly opposite in my own ruminations. What is the usefulness of being able to back up a SQL database if suddenly society collapses and I still need to feed my family? Where are my own culturally gifted hunting and gathering skills? I guarantee my great-grandmother, who never in her life rode in an automobile, never made prepackaged bullshit dragged out of the local grocery store on a nightly basis. Nor is it likely I can count more than three or four people I know who could get their vehicle back up and running if stranded out in 40-below temperatures using cobbled together bits of junk from the glove box and behind the seat.

Swallowed underscores that remote Alaska isn't the frozen paradise many of us imagine it to be. It's dirty and poor, riddled with drugs and alcohol, full of death and hunger and sadness. But I still love spending time in Kantner's world via his writing, where the air smells of salt and woodsmoke—when it isn't clogged with diesel fumes and Snogo exhaust—and a pleasant afternoon may be spent watching herds of caribou storm the river just beyond the front yard. I'd happily take a seat in Kantner's fishing boat over a berth on one of those Alaskan cruise ships any day, any time of year.

Seth Kantner reads from Swallowed by the Great Land at Fact & Fiction Sat., Oct. 10, at 1:30 PM.

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