Review of Kantner’s “Shopping for Porcupine”

In preparation for our “Ordinary Wolves” discussion, we’re running a thoughtful review of Kantner’s follow-up nonfiction book.

By Amanda Coyne. Posted originally at Alaska Dispatch. Used with permission.

Wallace Stegner, often hailed the dean of Western literature, would be 100 years old this week. In The New York Times, columnist Timothy Egan quotes friends of Stegner’s who said that the man who won nearly every major literary award was, until the end, furious with East Coast publishing elitism, particularly as represented in The Times, which famously snubbed him. When it did write about Stegner, it couldn’t get his name right, calling him William.

“It was The New York Times that broke his heart,” Stegner’s friend said.

This got me thinking about Alaska writer Seth Kantner. Kantner, of course, isn’t nearly as prolific as Stegner, and both are completely different stylists. Aside from some lands-rights issues and the same federal appeals court, the West and Alaska, both writers’ respective landscapes, have as much in common as the Congo and Iowa do.

But there are some similarities between the two.

Both love the land with a furious intensity, one that informs all of their writings. Both are conservationists, and both write breathtakingly sweeping books, with pages that weep over the exploitation of the land, and the world they love and call home.

On the face of it, Kantner, who lives in Kotzebue, would seem to have less to worry about than Stegner, who lived all over the West while it was thick with development booms. But enter Kantner’s world either in his first novel, Ordinary Wolves, or in his latest book of essays and photos, Shopping for Porcupine, and you’ll understand how high the stakes are. Stegner dreamed of a day when Westerners would create “a society to match the scenery.” Kantner is terrified that society will continue to create anything at all in his beloved Arctic. So far, what little it has done in the name of that concept to the area and to the people hasn’t worked out so well. Kantner would say it’s been a disaster.

In “Watching for Mammoth,” the last essay in Shopping for Porcupine, Kantner describes the way he feels when he stumbles across a Bureau of Land Management survey site. “After a lifetime growing up on this wind-bitten bluff,” he writes, “the fear that survey tape shivers through me is stronger than any ninety-below storm. I have flown over the States all parceled and owned in squares. I have traveled the confines of those straight, straight roads.”

Structured. Straight. Civilized. Squared. Tamed. These are all anathema to Kantner. You can’t have any of these things and have northwestern Alaska too, and it takes at least a book, and probably a whole bookcase full of books, to show why. To show what’s lost. To show the heartbreak and the triumph of the tundra, of the Eskimo, of one white boy’s family from Outside who loved and respected it enough to build a sod igloo and bare two sons in the middle of it. In other words, Kantner’s got enough material to keep him busy writing for as long as he can, and let’s hope that he stays and keeps busy with it, nudge, nudge.

Ordinary Wolves centered on these subjects, but they were relayed through the perspective of a fictional young narrator. In Porcupine, we have nonfiction. It’s often said that the truth is more truthful through fiction. But there are, of course, different kinds of truths; some are emotional and some are based on fact. Here we get both. In Porcupine, we have pure grown-up Kantner. We have his life and his family laid out before us. We have his hopes and his fears. We have anger and we have love.

But because they are such different kinds of books, you really can’t compare the two, and so I’ll stop trying. Let me just say that in both fiction and nonfiction, nobody ever has writen as compellingly and poetically about the real Alaska as Seth Kantner.

And it’s a shame that more in the country don’t know that. Much of Kantner’s writing is for small publications, and both of his books are published by Milkweed, an independent publisher. And they’ve published a visually stunning book in Porcupine. Kantner is also a skilled photographer; he shot the achingly beautiful photos sprinkled throughout the book.

Thank God for independent publishers, but is it enough? Kantner is certainly respected among readers, and Ordinary Wolves seems to be turning into a cult-classic without the help of the kind of literary cache that is supposed to come from being published by a big publisher.

But still, if it’s frustrating for readers like me to see such beautiful writing go unrecognized by those New York literary circles, it was enough to break a giant of a writer like Stegner’s heart.
The New York Times never reviewed Stegner’s The Spectator Bird, which won the National Book Award. And only after he won a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose, (one of the very best books in the whole wide world) did the paper write about him. But this time only in one paragraph, and not a laudatory one, either.

Ordinary Wolves did merit a laudatory paragraph in The New York Times, so maybe Kantner has more of a chance in that arena. If he wants it, that is. It’s hard to imagine that it means that much to him; this frostbitten scribe, writing from the edge of the world, and loving that edge with everything in him.

So much breaks Kantner’s heart, but I doubt The Grey Lady would ever cause him to lose sleep. But then again, maybe all that heatbreak drove Stegner to write more than he would have otherwise.

1 thought on “Review of Kantner’s “Shopping for Porcupine””

  1. I just recommnended Shopping for Porcupine to a friend the other night. In fact, I recommend both of Seth’s books whenever I get the chance. The last laugh may be on the big New York publishers who’ve missed the boat on several great Alaskan titles. The center of the publishing universe may well be caving in, its energy burbling out to independent, regional, and alternative publishers. We’ll see. Thanks for a great review, Amanda.

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