The mushing season is upon us, with all its howling excitement. This challenging sport, steeped in the unique traditions of the north, has inspired generations of writers.
Two recent books offer to take young readers along for a vicarious taste of the Iditarod trail. Yet although both focus on the famous race and its canine athletes, the two are poles apart.
Jeff Schultz's "Dogs of the Iditarod" is primarily a photography collection, but the nonfiction text is informative and chocked full of lively quotes and anecdotes. The focus is squarely on the sled dogs, those super critters whose feats of strength, endurance and intelligence have won them legions of fans.
"As thrilling as the Iditarod race is because of its length, history, the terrain it covers and its unique nature, it holds the attention of its audience primarily because it involves man's best friend," Schultz writes. "The dogs of the Iditarod are truly what make this race so captivating."
"Dogs of the Iditarod" dwells on the training and breeding of sled dogs. Joe Runyan, a past race champion, tells the author the modern Alaskan husky is not a breed of dog, but rather a "concept," with the emphasis on speed and hard pulling. The book does a good job showcasing the motley array of dogs seen on the trail.
Schultz has been shooting the Iditarod and hobnobbing with mushers for two decades. As a result, this book features a wide variety of excellent images showing sled dogs at work, rest and play. He includes plenty of cute puppies as well, guaranteed to find the soft spot in any dog lover's heart.
The text is not written specifically for juvenile readers and contains challenging words like "decathlete" and "thoroughbred." But motivated children in the upper grades who like dogs will tackle this book with enthusiasm. Also, Schultz avoids controversial issues such as dog injuries and culling puppies, so parents need not fear the book will distress sensitive young animal lovers.
"The Mystery on Alaska's Iditarod Trail" is a dog of a different color. Georgia-based author Carole Marsh has written the book as part of a 12-volume series, "Carole Marsh Mysteries." The books target ages 7 to 14, putting real children into fictional mystery adventures in historic settings across the United States. Her books aim to entertain while promoting education and wholesome values, according to information from the publisher.
The Mystery on Alaska's Iditarod Trail
By Carole Marsh
$14.95 (hardcover); $5.95 (paperback)
In this volume, writer Mimi takes her grandchildren, 9-year-old Christina and 7-year-old Grant, to Alaska, where she is researching the Iditarod race for an upcoming book. The Georgians travel to Wasilla, where they stay at the Rutledge Dog Sled Training Camp with musher Joe Rutledge, his Inuit wife and their two children, 11-year-old Raven and 7-year-old Hunter.
The plot takes shape as Rut-ledge's dogs disappear without a trace and are even poisoned leading up to the race. A pile of gold bars disappears as well. Soon the children are on the trail not only to Nome but also to recover the dogs and gold.
For Alaska readers, the book veers off track into improbability when, a few days before the race, Mimi gives her grandchildren this startling bit of news:
"Well, I've talked to Mr. Rut-ledge and he has gotten special permission to have a second sled, so we can bring all you kids along on the Iditarod dog sled race!"
Totem poles along the trail and a handful of other bloopers are turn-offs. Despite the didactic interludes and educational appendices, the writer has not done all her homework.
Parts of the book are appealing, such as the story of "gold dust soup" and the visiting children's enthusiasm about their first ride in a dog sled:
"'Wa-hoo!' Christina shouted. The sled zipped through the trails. Small branches brushed against their nylon parkas, making loud whooshing sounds. The rest of the kids cheered in delight," Marsh writes.
With plot devices such as sinister men with dark moustaches peering from the bushes and writing sprinkled with exclamation marks, this book belongs to the hoary tradition of pulp fiction, juvenile style. It will appeal to those who enjoy mass-produced adventure series, such as "Nancy Drew."
Although the drawings at the foot of each page are clever, the photographs don't do much. Marsh uses shots of the real children featured in the stories and dresses them up with digital devices. But the fact is the photos look like they were taken in her kitchen with a few borrowed dogs and they have nothing in common with the grand scenery of the great race.
"The Mystery on Alaska's Iditarod Trail" doesn't have the strengths to go the long haul, but it can provide some fluff entertainment as long as young readers don't take it seriously.
Of these two volumes, Schultz's is the clear winner. "Dogs of the Iditarod" lacks the drama found in some mushing stories, but its pictures are delightful and its truth is more exciting and appealing than Marsh's lame fiction.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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