Polar Opposites, All the Same: Shopping for Porcupine by Seth Kantner

Shopping for Porcupine

Shopping for Porcupine:
A Life in Arctic Alaska

BY Seth Kantner
(Milkweed Editions, 2009)

From the Publisher:

“Beginning with his parents’ migration to the wilderness of Arctic Alaska and extending to contemporary struggles between subsistence living and sport hunting, Shopping for Porcupine provides an… account of life in the far north. A grown man’s appreciation for his young daughter’s unfettered understanding of language; enlightened meditations on the permanence, severity, and grandeur of nature; and finally, elegiac warnings and stirring calls to action — taken together, these essays provide a revealing portrait of the author of the bestselling novel Ordinary Wolves, and of the land he so deeply loves.”

If there’s one lesson aspiring authors are taught in Memoir: 101, it’s that one of the most fundamental responsibilities of the nonfiction writer is to unlock the door to the reader’s life. In other words, it is possible to conjure up empathy and compassion from the reader if the author can convince them that his/her story is also the story of the reader, even if it is not. The job of a memoirist, a good memoirist, is to take a literary snapshot of a particular time or significant experience from their life, package and present it in a way that makes the writer’s true story an analogy to the reader’s, which then reveals a universal truth about humanity, and if possible, about the whole world. (To wit: make the specifics general.) The task of inspiring empathy ain’t easy. Aside from the elementary obstacles, such as bad writing or lack of talent, the writer faces many challenges and distractions, like fear or ego, and temptations like political agendas or revenge, not to mention the writer’s marathon of finding a publisher once the book is written. But when a storyteller succeeds, the former aspiring writer (now “published author”) is transformed into an amalgamation of titles: therapist, entertainer, goodwill ambassador, guide, and looking glass, because their work has reached a tender, vulnerable spot in the reader’s heart, and a profound connection has been made. The author’s story becomes a parable of my story, of your story, of everyone’s story.

I felt that the Alaskan-born, -bred and -based author knew exactly who I was, unerringly how I was feeling, and precisely what I felt about life in general, even though our life stories were polar opposites.

I am a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. I live with my husband and two dogs on a 4th floor walk-up apartment. Each morning, my husband gets into a crowded subway car full of silent strangers avoiding eye contact and he rides into Manhattan, where he has a job building buildings. I stay at home with the dogs and write. In our neighborhood, we can buy mangoes at a bodega down the street at any time of the year. If we want heat in the winter, we send a piece of paper with a number on it to strangers in another city and they turn on our radiator. During my days and nights, I am rarely more than ten feet away from another human, even if it is a piece of drywall that conceals us from one another, and still I often find myself a bit lonely and isolated. I live in a city with over 2.5 million residents (and fewer trees), almost 5,000 miles from Alaska, yet when I read the Seth Kanter’s memoir Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska, I felt that the Alaskan-born, -bred and -based author knew exactly who I was, unerringly how I was feeling, and precisely what I felt about life in general, even though our life stories were polar opposites. Even though I was raised in Michigan, have never slept in a sod igloo on the Arctic Tundra wrapped in caribou hides after swimming in an ice floe while hunting for wounded waterfowl, even though my parents weren’t back-to-the-land free spirits from Ohio who moved to the remote Alaskan tundra to live a “semi-Eskimo” existence. Even though my mother is a Polish immigrant who met my father in Chicago, married, then raised three children in Michigan and I wasn’t birthed in an igloo in 1965 like Kanter was, and even though I never dreamed of becoming a great hunter in the Eskimo tradition like Kanter did, I felt after reading his memoir, I could reasonably say, “I am this Seth Kanter, and Seth Kanter is me.” I am this person, and this person is me. Even if I was reading this person’s story about their life in Kotzebue, Alaska while sprawled across my couch in Brooklyn, New York.

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