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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review

Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska.
By Seth Kantner. Milkweed Editions, 2008, 240 pp.

Many years ago, a student in my writing seminar, a young woman who had grown up in Barrow, Alaska, said that she wanted to write a memoir—but not about herself: she wanted to write a memoir about the tundra. I didn’t fully get it at the time, and she didn’t get far with her project, but after reading Kantner’s book and seeing his spectacular photographs—of wildlife, ice, and tundra—I now understand the grip this powerful landscape had on her.

Kantner was born in Arctic Alaska—in an igloo—the younger son of Howie and Erna, both originally from Ohio, who felt the pull of that landscape and moved there in the sixties to live, like the natives, off the land. Opening with chapters on his childhood, Kantner describes a life of hunting, trapping, ice fishing, studying correspondence school books, and waiting eagerly for the excitement of infrequent and longed-for visitors. Essay-like chapters move forward through his coming of age as he turns to photography and writing and establishes a family of his own, while simultaneously chronicling the enormous changes technology and climate change have brought to the land he loves.

If the world his parents knew is gone, Kantner still stays as close as he can to the old ways. The catchy title of the book is also the title of a chapter about killing a porcupine: hunting is a form of “shopping” in Alaska. Nonetheless, at some point, he says, “he began to notice that taking photographs felt better than finding fox feet in my traps.” He hunts, it’s an intrinsic part of his life, but as the elders did, for food.

Kantner has great admiration for the elders and one of the sections I liked best in the book was written by an elder, Bob Uhl, who has a passionate appreciation of the gentian flower. Writing about this beautiful annual that manages to survive the toughest climate, he captures what seem to me the main attractions of Arctic Alaska for those who live there: the beauty, and the intense awareness of survival that makes life precious.

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