Kids read books differently than adults do. These days, when I say I loved a book, I mean, “This book has beautiful sentences and strong characters, kept me entertained on a long plane ride, and the ending didn’t disappoint me. I’ll probably read it again someday. I’d like to own a copy of it and keep it on my shelf.”
But back then? When I was eight years old? When I said I loved a book, I meant, “This book completely captured my imagination! I LOVE EVERY CHARACTER! When I grow up I want to BE THE MAIN CHARACTER. I am going to read this book over and over again until my parents, teacher, and school librarian force me to read another one. I will check it out of the library over and over until an entire card is covered with my name! I will carry it around with me until the cover falls off and I have to tape it back on with masking tape! I WANT TO LIVE INSIDE THIS BOOK FOREVER.”
First off, the title is amazing. RACE AGAINST DEATH! I love it so much. I never actually owned this book, but I think I had it checked out of the library for all of third grade.
RACE AGAINST DEATH is the story of the 1925 Serum Run to Nome, in which 20 mushers (aka dog sled racers) relayed diptheria antitoxin serum across Alaska’s frozen interior — almost 700 miles (for reference, approximately the distance from Chicago to Atlanta) — in five and a half days, stopping a diptheria epidemic from consuming Nome.
So basically, it’s the awesomest story ever.
The book was published in 1976, just three years after the first official Iditarod Race. By the time I read it, the race was well established, and there were a handful of other books I could read about it. And boy, did I. I read every single book I could get my hands on, until I knew everything there was to know about Alaska, the Iditarod, sled dog racing, and diptheria. I even had a board game called “Mushing the Iditarod Trail,” in which you filled a tiny sled with dog food, booties, sleeping bag, snow shoes, and gold & then tried not to lose any of them as you made your way across Alaska.
My plan, at age 8, was to move to Alaska and breed sled dogs. I drew a picture of my future house once. It was two stories; I would live on the top floor, and the dogs would live on the bottom floor. There was a slide between floors, for easy access.
At age 9, I realized that I might need an income or something, so my plan was to breed dogs in the summer, and be a teacher in the school year. Except for March, when I would race the Iditarod. My goal was to win the Iditarod more times than Susan Butcher.
When we had to do state reports, I chose Alaska. I probably read a bunch of other books about the state, but the only one I remember is James Michener’s ALASKA, which is approximately a million pages long, and is definitely not a children’s book. My dad gave it to me for my 9th birthday. He tries.
When I was 10, we got a golden retriever puppy and I tried to train her, as practice for my breeding/training/mushing career. I trained her to sit up and beg, and to climb a tree in the backyard to fetch balls, but never to pull a sled. We didn’t have much snow that winter. Also, she was crazy.
When I was 11, I went through a phase where I was obsessed with blind people, and read every book I could find about blindness. I wanted to be blind myself, partially I thought braille was cool, but mostly so I could take my dog to restaurants with me.
At 12, I read too many Lurlene McDaniel books and decided I wanted to get leukemia.
At 13, I discovered boys.
Eventually, I lost sight of my Alaskan Iditarod dreams. I read other books, I imagined other futures. But I never forgot about the Iditarod, and I think a part of me never stopped dreaming, even though I was a bookish, dreamy asthmatic with seasonal depression who hated being uncomfortable.
When I was seventeen, I was chatting with a favorite teacher about this old dream. “When I was little, I wanted to be a musher — a dog sled racer,” I told her. “Not just any musher — I wanted to win the Iditarod more times than Susan Butcher.”
“Too bad that will never happen,” she said.
“WHAT?” I got defensive. “You don’t know that. It might still happen.”
“You can’t even run in gym class,” she said.
“I MIGHT STILL BE A MUSHER,” I said. “IT COULD HAPPEN, OKAY?”
Honestly, until that moment, I’d never even considered the fact that I wasn’t actually going to achieve the dream I’d set for myself almost ten years earlier. I’d been raised to believe I could do anything I set my mind to; no one had ever said I couldn’t achieve my dreams.
No matter that I didn’t even want to be a dog sled racer anymore, that my dreams now involved smoky cafes and angsty poetry. No matter that, realistically, there was no way I could physically handle a single leg of the Iditarod — just the running alongside the sled to stay warm/rest the dogs would be too much, not to mention the part where you fall through river ice or navigate through a blinding ice storm or get attacked by a moose. No matter that the cold and dark of a Wisconsin winter usually had me trying to stick my head inside an oven by mid-February at the latest, so the cold and dark of an Alaskan winter would do me in for sure. No matter! You don’t just go around telling people that they’ll never achieve their dreams!
In the first weeks of college, my friend told me that he loved Alaska and had always dreamed of going there someday. “I loved Alaska too,” I told him wistfully. “Once….”
I gave up my Iditarod dreams for real, and didn’t think about them often. They still made me sad.
“No.” I shook my head. “I’ve never even heard of it.”
He was stunned. “HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?” He marched the book over to the counter and bought it for me. “This is a book you HAVE to own,” he told me.
I turned it over in my hands. Its full title: WINTERDANCE: THE FINE MADNESS OF RUNNING THE IDITAROD. It’s a memoir, the true story of how author Gary Paulsen first ran the Iditarod.
AT AGE 44.
It’s not too late! I have years to train! I COULD BE THE NEXT GARY PAULSEN!
Maybe adults don’t read that differently, after all.
Books can still spark our imaginations, help us to imagine other futures, other pasts, other lives for ourselves. Books can still help us step outside ourselves for a while and hang out in someone else’s adventure.
Books still get carried around until the cover is all bent and the pages are all dog-eared and covered in scribbled marginalia.
At least Winterdance does.
M. Molly Backes
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