Thursday, December 11, 2014

Reader's Diary #1098- German Saravanja (writer), Nick MacIntosh (illustrator): The Man with the Wolf in His Belly

Many residents of the Northwest Territories are familiar with the high quality picture books based on Dene legends published by Theytus Books. The Man with the Wolf in His Belly by German Saravanja reminds me somewhat of those in that it has a mysterious story with fantastical elements presented in a matter-of-fact tone and that legend-like feel is a good thing. As far as I know though The Man with the Wolf in His Belly is not based on an existing legend but created out of Saravanja's head.

Nonetheless it is a very true-to-the-North tale of a man from elsewhere who comes to find himself. Of course, the way that tale usually ends is one of two ways: 1. successfully 2. tragically. The interesting thing about Saravanja's telling is that he's given us details of a man's life that change the valuation. There have been similar men with hermit-tendencies move to the north, live for a while on the land, then either die via starvation or other means, often never to be heard from again. The lesson in most of these (very real) accounts is usually one of respecting the land, of not taking it or one's survival abilities for granted. Saravanja flips this somewhat but putting us, the readers, at a man's side when he "disappears," and his life is about finding peace and understanding of his role in nature and the world at large. Suddenly, and for this individual, it has become a success story.

At first I wasn't sure if this was a children's story, despite the picture book format that most associate with that age demographic. It's not fast paced and the central character is an adult man.  In contrast the Theytus books often had animals as central characters which often hold more appeal to kids, and despite the title, animals, though present, are not the focus of The Man with the Wolf in His Belly. Animals are important here, but not any more than say the trees, the rocks, the water, or the sky, and this is still the man's story; how he found his place in all of that. But while it's not a book I'd expect every child to connect to, it is one that I think I would have. I recognized a bit of myself in this man one of the few bits of myself that's been there forever, unchanged— and I think I would have related to him even as a young boy.

As for MacIntosh's illustrations, they are stylistic and lend the natural an air of the surreal. I wish I had more of an art background to discuss them, but from my limited knowledge they appear to be oil pastels in their thick application. They're colourful, though perhaps a bit too dark (physically, not in subject), but otherwise help accentuate Saranvanja's text.

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