February 2, 2012


The cover looks all nice and serious, doesn't it?  The photograph is by Mr. Paulsen himself.  It definitely strikes a man-out-in-nature tone.

That element is not lacking in the book by any means, but after finishing it, you come away with a different tone altogether.

This book is hilarious.

Oh sure, there's terror aplenty.  But Paulsen knows better than anyone, that terror and humor go hand in hand and this book is full of absurdities.

I mean, come on.  It's about running the Iditarod, for crying out loud. His subtitle is: The fine madness of running the Iditarod.  Madness indeed.  Do you have any idea how long this race is?  It can change year to year, but the most common estimate is 1150 miles.  To put that in perspective, that's roughly the same distance between Maine and Florida.  Alaska is really really big.  Maybe an illustration will help here.
It's not just the length, either.  We are talking about some insanely terrible conditions.  Oh sure, there is snow and ice and lots of biting dogs and their poop.  There are also savagely attacking moose, cliffs, breaks in the ice long stretches where there is no snow to sled on (!), drunken revelers, and  places where the temperature gets so low as to be not fit for life.  That's not even counting the unpredictable weather that can blow severe storms in at the drop of a snowshoe.

I know, I said this was hilarious and you're far from convinced at this moment.  But what this book most reminds me of is Bryson's A Walk In the Woods in which a woefully unprepared author and friend try to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.  I've read Bryson's but don't seem have to posted about it.  That's okay, my book club has picked it for sometime this year, so I'll write it up then.

So yes, Paulsen decides to run the Iditarod and proceeds to do every single thing wrong that you can think of.  He doesn't do any research at all, just plunges right in.  The only things he has going for him is his incredible sense for dogs, his inhuman determination, and a whole bunch of just plain dumb luck.

Probably the funniest bit is when he takes the team out on their first night run during training.  He's living in northern Minnesota and he's got a team of fifteen pumped up running dogs pulling a freaking car (sans engine) through the woods.  At night.  You know what else comes out at night in norther Minnesota?  Skunks.  I badly want to tell you this anecdote, but know I couldn't do it justice.  Even if you're not interested in the whole book, do pick up a copy in a library or bookstore and treat yourself to the top of page 82 until page 88.  I was laughing so hard I couldn't breathe.

The first half of the book is like that.  The training and the numbskull mistakes that sometime almost kill him and sometimes just provide onlookers (usually his wife) with something to point and laugh at.  He doesn't even get to Alaska until past the halfway point of the book (which is under 300 pages).  The second half, the race itself, has just as much hilarity but also more scary challenges to overcome.

At the end we learn that due to a heart condition he won't be able to run the race again (though we also learn he did it at least one other time before the bad news from the doctor).  This was published in 1994 and the events described were from about a decade before that.  It's okay, he seems to have lived well with his heart condition. He's now in his seventies and has published over sixty books since this one.

An enjoyable book from an entertaining writer about something I never want to do but am so glad he did so he could write about it so well.  Highly recommended.