Leapfrog Press 2013
Reviewed by Bob Wake
The heroine of John Smelcer’s contemporary wilderness novel Lone Wolves is a 16-year-old high school student of Native Alaskan heritage whose rugged optimism stands in stark contrast to the cultural death spiral of her classmates and village community. Deneena “Denny” Yazzie is a dogsledder with aspirations to enter the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Her friends have largely fallen prey to drug and alcohol abuse, or teen pregnancy, such as the case of Mary Paniaq, a victim of rape by an older cousin.
What might seem like over-the-top melodrama in many novels, is forcefully presented by Smelcer as harsh social reality:
Denny knew that Alaskan Natives, especially young men, committed suicide at a rate a dozen times higher than that of the rest of America. One out of five young men kills himself by the age of twenty-five. Village cemeteries were full of the corpses of failed and dead dreams. Denny had even heard of a 12-year-old boy in a village up north who simply walked off across the frozen arctic tundra at 60 below zero, into the teeth of the wind.
Denny writes nature poetry, keeps a private journal inspired by Anne Frank’s Holocaust diary, and practices the pronunciation of Native words taught to her by her grandfather, who is a living lexicon of the language spoken by a dwindling handful of community elders. (“Without even realizing it, Denny was a kind of anthropologist-in-training, a documenter of culture.”) The novel’s linguistic foundation—fully supplemented with thoughtful appendices—is the result of Smelcer’s lifelong studies into the endangered language of his own Ahtna tribal heritage.
As Smelcer has previously shown in a trio of award-winning young adult novels, The Trap (2006), The Great Death (2009), and Edge of Nowhere (2010), he is a gifted storyteller with a unique perspective that draws from Native myths, anthropology, language studies, as well as classic American adventure tales. Denny enthusiastically devours her high school reading assignments that include Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. Insightful and slyly revisionist literary observations peek through the pages of Lone Wolves and add to its smartly self-referential genre appeal:
In keeping with the spirit, middle school and high school students read Jack London’s quintessential Alaskan adventure story, The Call of the Wild. Few teachers pointed out London’s overt notions of supremacy of the White Man over Indians—the steadfast mantra of imperialism and colonialism. America’s westward expansion had been driven by it. For the most part, young readers simply liked a good dog story, and the story of Buck was among the best.
At the center of the novel is Denny’s growing friendship with a potentially dangerous wolf (“Your name is Tazlina. It means swift. I’m gonna call you Taz for short”) separated from a pack that may have been responsible for the death of a teacher in a nearby village. Later, with Taz added to her dogsled team, Denny will risk her life to assist a fellow dogsledder who has fallen through the ice into freezing waters. At its best, Lone Wolves is a breathlessly paced and thrilling ride for readers of all ages.