Ordinary Wolves turns much of what one would expect to read about the "natural and native" life in Alaska on its head and in so doing has crafted a strong first novel that more than overcomes its flaws. The story focuses on Cutuk, a white boy who lives outside an Inupiaq village with his sister and brother (both older) and his father, who brought them all (plus their mother who left when Cutuk was very young) to Alaska where he paints and lives close to the land. We watch Cutuk grow from five or so to young adulthood, wrestling with his place in the world, torn between the wilderness and the city, between modern life and more traditional life, between white and Inuit. In between chapters following Cutuk, we are treated to beautifully written passages set in the animal world and so like Cutuk, we move between the world of humans and the wild.
Part of the joy of wolves is the way expectations are turned around on the reader. In this novel, Cutuk's family is more "native" than most of the natives. They live the old way, out of the village in "camp", eschewing the motorized "sno-go's" in favor of dogs, trapping in the old style, living in a sod home. This is not the romanticized Alaska. It is a gritty, dark view of the life there, filled with drugs, suicides, domestic abuse, alcoholism, cruelty to animal, sardonic portrayals of white "native lovers" or "animal lovers"(Despite this, the tone itself is rarely as dark, a skillful maneuver on the author's part). So while the city is as physically and socially ugly as one would expect in a "country-city" novel, it also has friends and at times its own sort of beauty and so the contrast isn't as simple as usual in these sort of works
Cutuk is an easy character to care about and his coming-of-age story is realistically and tenderly conveyed. We get to know him intimately. His father is also a wonderful character but remains a bit mysterious, a bit of an enigma to both Cutuk and the reader. On the one hand it would be nice to know more about him, to see more deeply into him, but the sense of distance works in the novel and has something equally appealing about it. His brother and sister disappear a bit too quickly and are off stage a bit too much, as are a few of the other side characters. a strong exception is Enuk, an elder native hunter whom Cutuk idolizes as a youth and who is drawn in wonderfully sharp detail, exerting a presence even when he isn't there.
There are some minor pacing issues. Cutuk's introspective passages on not fitting in sometimes get a little repetitive. There are a few spots where the book lags and it probably could have benefited from more stringent editing. But these flaws are more than outweighed by the book's strengths: strong characterization of both Cutuk and his father, beautifully lyrical descriptive prose focusing on the animals, the depth and variety of emotions conveyed, and the underlying deep questions of who am I, how do we balance the modern and the traditional, the sense of self and the desire for society, the natural and the technological, the desire for comfort and the wish to do as little harm in the world as possible?
Read through the few rough patches, enjoy the ride with Cutuk, and let the book's deeper questions linger. It's well worth the read. Strong recommendation.