To the Teacher
Dogwolf is a haunting coming-of-age novel that is compelling reading, staying with the reader long after the last page is finished. The author, Alden Carter, who wrote other favorites such as Up Country, Sheila's Dying, and Between a Rock and Hard Place, is an award-winning author who says he writes because "some bizarre combination of genetics, background, experience, and accident made me a storyteller" (Something About the Author; volume 18, p. 93). Whatever the reason Carter became a writer, teachers, are rewarded with strong characterization, rich settings, and multiple themes that fill Carter's novels. This is particularly true of Dogwolf.
The plight of the Native American is poignantly depicted as Pete watched his friends on the reservation tire of wide-eyed tourists and their cameras, succumb to alcoholism, and work to hold on to old customs that seemingly have no place in a modern world. The intensity and ferocity of a forest fire is graphically described as Pete and his stepfather each do what they can to get these fires under control. Symbolically, Pete works all summer to get himself under control. Actually, symbols are used throughout the novel. From the first chapter where Pete's mom explains that the dogwolf's problem is that it is not full wolf or full dog, to the last chapter where three trees appear to erupt in flames as Pete engages in a battle for his life, students have the opportunity to see how an author skillfully creates one image that stands for something else. Against the backdrop of raging fires, Carter explores the issues that all teens at some time confront: the fear of not fitting in, the need to find one's place in society, and the need to develop one's own ethical system.
Dogwolf, named an American Bookseller Pick of the Lists is an excellent book to read and discuss. Perfect for inclusion in any multicultural literature unit, this book offers the depth that skilled readers want and the excitement that reluctant readers require. Not only will students enjoy the suspense of the forest fires, the mystery of the dogwolf, and the anguish of Pete's search for identity, but they will want to spend time discussing the issues of family, heritage, responsibility, and courage that are all central themes in this novel.
The summer Pete LaSavage is fifteen he struggles with his identity. Up until this summer, his eclectic ancestry — part Chippewa, part Metis, part Swedish — never bothered him. This summer, though, he questions who he is and how he fits into a world where half-breeds never get a whole chance. He is sure that he doesn't belong anywhere. As Pete confronts his feelings of isolation, he knows the bigger, more immediate problems are the never-ending fires burning around his family's farm in the forests of northern Wisconsin. Too young to actually fight the fires with his firefighter stepfather, Pete sits watch in one of the fire towers. While there he has time to wonder how his tribe, the Chippewa, fits in modern America and to sort through his past. As a constant reminder of his confusion and anger, the howls of the dogwolf never stop. This animal, which some say is part dog and part wolf, is kept caged on a nearby farm. When it appears that the animal's owner is not returning, Pete sneaks onto the property, intending to shoot the dogwolf, but then sets the animal free. Sadly, this animal soon seems to be the cause of terrible accidents. When asked who let this strange beast go, Pete continually denies knowing. When the combination of the summer's heat and ongoing drought finally cause the great fire they have all dreaded, Pete also learns that his best friend, Jim Redwing, is dead, killed by the dogwolf. Pete knows that he alone must track this animal and kill it. Through this experience, he learns about himself, about his heritage, and about his place in the world.
Thinking About the Book
- To help students understand that characterization means not only how a character is described but also how a character is developed over time throughout a book, ask students to label Pete, Jim, Pete's mom, and Chuck as a flat character or a round character. Flat characters may be well described but show little growth over the course of the novel. Round characters, however, are not only well described, but show changed over time. Ask students to find scenes throughout the novel to support their comments.
- Ask students to speculate why the book it titled Dogwolf. Is the dogwolf the main character? Have students study the quote on the front cover: "They say there's a place for everyone. They lied…" Who is saying this quote? Is it a lie? If so, who in the book doesn't have a place? Who decides who has a place and who doesn't?
- Pete's grandfather tells Pete "Twilight…[is what] the Metis call the time between the dog and the wolf" (page 200). Ask students to consider this statement and then answer these questions: Why would anyone call twilight the time between the dog and the wolf? Is that an apt description? What are all the ways that Pete is like twilight? What are the ways that he is like the dogwolf?
- Discuss with students the fact that the dogwolf does not survive, even when given his freedom. He is never able to fit into the world. Does Pete, the other dogwolf, survive?
- Remind students that this book takes place during the summer that Pete is looking for truths about himself. Ask students if it seems ironic that as he seeks the truth, he is the one who lies throughout the novel. Have students find scenes where he does not tell the truth. For instance, twice he denies knowing anything about letting the dogwolf go free (see page 88 and 137). Why does he tell these lies? Is he lying more to himself or to others?
- Give students the following scenarios and ask them to consider the ramifications of each on the novel. Then ask them to rate them from having the least effect on the book to having the biggest effect on the book.
- What if Pete had been a Chippewa rather than a mix of Chippewa, Metis, and Swedish?
- What if fires had not been burning that summer?
- What if there had been no dogwolf?
- What if Pete's grandfather had not arrived for a visit?
- Fire plays an important part in this book. Fire threatens to consume the forest; Pete thinks he sees the willow tree catch fire and then learns he saw Saint Elmo's fire. Later, as Pete wrestles with the dogwolf, he sees three tall pine trees explode in fire with lightning racing down their trunks. Ask students to discuss why Carter chose the recurrent symbol of fire. What is there about the nature of fire that helps emphasize Pete's plight?
- Ask students to list all the physical deaths in this novel. Next, ask them to identify symbolic deaths. Encourage them to think not only about deaths of individuals but also deaths of cultures, of land, and of innocence. Then ask them what revelations came from these deaths, if any. Finally, ask students if this is a story of death or new life.
An interview with Alden Carter
KB: You've described Dogwolf as "the best novel I've done." Why do you say that?
AC: I am fond of all my books, but Dogwolf is my favorite. I also think it is my best. Dogwolf was the result of nearly a decade of pondering an idea, doing research, and learning to write with the skill I thought the story deserved. I hope I did it justice.
KB: I can certainly see the research you did in the book. In fact, I see lots of nonfiction in this book. I like the way you bring in the facts. Those facts add truth to the fiction. How much research do you do for your books?
AC: I do a great deal of research for my fiction, as well as my nonfiction. I think as a writer, it is my obligation to get the facts right. As I learn about a subject, new dramatic possibilities open up for the story. A simple fact, tool, or process may become the starting point for a scene, a plot thread, or a full-blown theme.
KB: You've also said that reading itself for you is a joy.
AC: Yes. I was raised by parents who loved books and read to us almost nightly until we were well into our teens. I wasn't a particularly good student, but I read a lot: history, mythology, westerns, science fiction, dog stories, adventures, classics.
KB: I see remnants of all the reading you did coming out in Dogwolf. There are so many stories in this book that I wonder which story is most important to you.
AC: I sometimes feel that I have been preparing my whole life to tell the story of Pete LaSavage, Jim Redwing, the dogwolf.
For me, Dogwolf is about what troubles the deepest of our dreams, when all that civilizes us in the waking world fades to mist and primeval savagery whispers from the dark recesses of collective memory. For we were all once, generations upon generations ago, both predators and prey, alive with a terrible intensity as we listened to the howling of things we could not name in the shades beyond the firelight.
Only when we come to know the savagery at the core of our being can we, I think, truly being to understand what it means to be human. Or so it is for Pete and Jim, and so it has been for me in telling their story.