Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Marchez! André Jute's Iditarod

If you are in Alaska this week you are likely somewhere in the vicinity of one of the checkpoints for the Iditarod, the 1,049 mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome. The race is considered the toughest and most perilous race on earth and, as such, attracts a lot of interest from people who think damn-near killing yourself is good sport.

If you are not in Alaska this week you would do yourself a favor by picking up a copy of André Jute's Iditarod: A Novel of the Greatest Race on Earth. This book is one of those rare occurrences where I read the book, thought about for a couple days and then read it again. The first time I read it, I read it for the story – I was just dying to see what happened. The second time I read it was for the sheer beauty and intensity of the writing.

The story that forms the core of Jute's novel is a combination of adventure and romance. Rhodes Dealney grew up on a ranch in Colorado and she is an accomplished outdoorswoman who runs her dogsled team through the Rockies or into town to pick up groceries in the winter. James Alderston Whitbury III is a spoiled, rich kid who is also an enthusiastic outdoors adventurer. They meet and you know this is going to be fun. What romance doesn't start out with a brutal, 1,000 mile race through the Alaskan wilderness? Right from the beginning we know that these two were made for each other, now they have to make sure they don't get killed while figuring that out for themselves.

Jute has clearly done a tremendous amount of research. He knows his material thoroughly – everything the care and feeding of the sled dogs (who are as much characters in the story as Rhodes and James) to the preparations for the ordeal. James prepares by designing an ultra-sleek, hi-tech sled designed to give him significant advantages. Rhodes prepares by working long, brutal hours in a salmon processing plant in order to earn the money for the race.

Animal lovers question whether the Iditarod is horrible for the dogs but if the love and care that Rhodes and James lavish on their dogs is the norm, dog lovers need not worry. The dogs are keenly attuned to their “musher” and are rewarded with a diet that includes treats like lamb chops, blocks of cream cheese, and “stinkfish” which sounds awful but they love it. Jute also points out that dogs, unlike horses and other animals, won't be pushed beyond their limit. When they've had it they just lay down and don't get back up until they feel like it.

But the real joy of this book are the descriptions of the beauties and perils that line the trail. Everything from the beauty of mushing through a snow-covered crevasse under the shimmer of the Northern Lights to encounters with wild animals. Rhodes and her dogs meet up with a cranky bull moose who doesn't want them on his trail. There are meetings with musk ox and a very hungry bear and the final climactic encounter with a pack of starving wolves that literally found me sitting on the edge of my chair – both times.

Jute has done an extraordinary job of giving the reader as much of an experience of this perilous as one can find while sitting in a comfortable chair while safely at home. His attention to detail is exquisite. He brings to life, not only his human characters, but the personalities of the animals as well. Rhodes' lead dog Toots (a name that delighted me because I have a dog named Toots in my current WIP) is a delightful character and the grouchy moose and the hungry bear will stay with me for a long time. This is a thoroughly exciting and beautiful book. Highly recommended.

Thanks for reading.

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