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posted: 5/16/2016 6:00 AM

'Neither Wolf Nor Dog' inspires, sparks disussion

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  • Author Kent Nerburn's writing comes from his deep convictions about native people and spiritual connections with the land. Shown is a local prairie, Muirhead Springs Forest Preserve in Hampshire.

    Author Kent Nerburn's writing comes from his deep convictions about native people and spiritual connections with the land. Shown is a local prairie, Muirhead Springs Forest Preserve in Hampshire.
    Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

  • Kent Nerburn's "Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads With an Indian Elder," will be the topic of a book discussion Wednesday, May 18, at Creek Bend Nature Center in St. Charles.

    Kent Nerburn's "Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads With an Indian Elder," will be the topic of a book discussion Wednesday, May 18, at Creek Bend Nature Center in St. Charles.
    Courtesy of Kent Nerburn

  • Author Kent Nerburn

    Author Kent Nerburn
    Courtesy of Kent Nerburn

 

Every once in a while, you read a book that changes your perspective on the world.

"Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads With an Indian Elder," by Kent Nerburn is one of those books for me.

The book will be the topic of discussion for the next Nature Book Group gathering from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 18, at Creek Bend Nature Center in St. Charles.

"Neither Wolf nor Dog," originally published in 1994 and revised in 2002, is about Indians in the United States. (Yes, Indians -- because, as Nerburn's native character Dan tells us, "Native American" and "American Indian" are no more politically correct to them than "Indian.")

The book is described as creative nonfiction. The characters are real but the sequence of events is reworked for the sake of storytelling.

"I am writing truth as a person doing spiritual storytelling; these are teaching stories," Nerburn explained in a review on the website www.minnpost.com.

"In the Native tradition, you need to teach by story because stories lodge in the heart." The book is definitely not like the many nonfiction yawners I've read on the topic. The setting is contemporary and the characters are authentic. By the end of chapter one, I thought, "Hey, I know this guy!'"

Nerburn writes from the perspective of a white person who has the good fortune to be trusted by a Lakota elder who goes by the name of Dan.

The narrator is not always sure that it's good fortune, though.

There's a road trip with no clear mission (or so it seems to the white guy).

There's confusion (also on the part of the white guy), mystery, suspense and pathos.

The adventure helps the characters -- and the reader -- cross the vast cultural chasm between Indians and non-Indians. The crossing may be precarious at times, but it's a life line.

There is a history lesson in this book, but it's not like the United States history that most of us where taught in school.

History is a jumble of politics, culture, and religion, with economy, ecology and land use in the mix.

There's quite a bit to consider in 335 pages. Nerburn weaves these threads in powerful dialogue and vivid images. The influence of history is always felt in the present, and this is painfully true in "Neither Wolf nor Dog."

Nerburn presents the contemporary American experience, both Indian and white, that carries the haunting memories of Indian boarding schools, land theft, and cultural genocide.

It can be an eye-opener, to be sure. You'll never look at a dreamcatcher the same way again.

Although there are horrors in "Neither Wolf nor Dog," it's not a horror story. In fact, parts of the book are funny, and the characters -- including the homely old dog named Fatback -- will have you smiling. In the book, as in life itself, there is levity to counter the gravity.

Nerburn's writing comes from his deep convictions about native people and spiritual connections with the land.

"Nature is the one thing I share with the Native people I write about," Nerburn explained in the MinnPost article by Amy Goetzman. "I make no claims to being Native, or to take on the trappings of their reality. … I want to help get the message out about what (Indians) have been through, and what they have to teach us, especially about the land. The idea of a spiritual quality in the land is something we need to accept and embrace, or we're all going to end up in a very bad place."

The book is not preachy, nor does it admonish people to change their lives. It does inspire reflection. It gives reason to pause and look at life, land, and spirit.

The ending of the book is not the end -- because, after all, the tapestry of life is never really finished.

The reader of "Neither Wolf nor Dog" gets the sense that he holds a strand or two to weave in the tapestry.

• Valerie Blaine is the nature programs manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. Email her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.

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