This book is a follow-on from the excellent Reindeer Moon
. Several of the characters from the original book are present and Yanan is referred to and of course the geography is the same (you even get a map with this book!).
The simiarity ends there. The protagonist is Kori, a son of Swift from Reindeer Moon. He is reintroduced to his father on the cusp of manhood and goes to join his mammoth hunting family. This arrangement is complicated by the fact that his father takes on a new wife at the same time, Pinesinger, a girl of Kori's age who happened to be Kori's first and only lover. Now having to call her stepmother and confused by her treatment of him, he is placated by the news that he is to have a wife of his own.
When he reaches the summer hunting ground he learns that this wife is a toddler, which is naturally a disappointment. The book then follows his growth as a hunter and his continuing bafflement with the world of women.
When he sees a woman that is not from the families that everyone knows, he acts on impulse and abducts her. This woman, who does not speak their language, is the "animal wife" of the title - her ways are strange and "against nature" and she cannot talk, so she is the object of scorn by the other tribespeople and a regular source of embarassment and frustration to Kori.
The author makes it plain from the start that this is related to (if not the origin of) the enduring folk tales of an animal wife from eastern Asia and North America - variously Caribou, Fox, Crane and other creatures. As such it must follow its type through to the end, although which exact end is never obvious.
Interestingly she says that this tale does not have parallels in European folk lore, saying that there the animal partner is an animal who is really a person all along, such as the Frog Prince, or was an animal but becomes human. In the North Pacific tradition, the woman returns to being an animal.
In fact this is a theme of much European tradition - I would especially note the Selkie or Seal-Woman stories in Gaelic tradition which follow the same formula as the ones she mentions.
It is hard to compare this book to Reindeer Moon, and it is perhaps unfair to both to try as they are related only in setting. It certainly lacks the mystical nature of the earlier book as it lacks the afterlife perspective of the former. However the observation of animals and people are equally as sharp, and we get to see the same society from a male perspective, which is quite different - instead of the importance of lineages, we learn of the importance of inheriting hunting rights and the obligations of the hunter to his various degrees of kinship.
And they still haven't quite got the hang of getting wolves to be hunter-companions, although they are beginning to learn. Maybe soon ...