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Home  >  Teaching and Learning  >  Shopping for Porcupine  >  Discussion Questions
Non-Dairy Creamer

Essay Summary:  Howie Kantner moves to Alaska, lives with an Inupiaq couple, and falls in love with the land. He meets Erna Strausbourger and they move to northwest Alaska and build a sod-igloo. They marry and have two sons, Kole and Seth.  The family begins an existence of living off the land. Kantner provides a brief history of the area, including Edward Teller's Project Chariot, a plan to detonate a nuclear bomb and create a port near Cape Thompson.

Discussion Questions:

Kantner traveled to Alaska but could have been drafted to the Korean War. Kantner calls this draft "a ticket to a wilderness of a more human nature." (p. 9) What does he mean by this?

Points to consider:

  • He's making a comment on mankind creating a "wild" world of his own through war.

How does Project Chariot's plan reflect a poor understanding of the land and the people of Cape Thompson? (p. 10)

Points to consider:

  • The idea of creating a port anywhere by using a nuclear bomb seems absurd to us now, but this plan nearly came to fruition.
  • The animals and Inupiaq people who subsist on the animals appear to have been of little concern to those planning the detonation.

How does Kantner's parenthetical about Edward Teller reveal the absurdity in Teller's nuclear ambitions? (p. 11)

Points to consider:

  • Detonating a hydrogen bomb on the moon in search of water?
  • The final sentence about "practice playing with our climate," also suggests that the man's approach to intentionally altering the climate is equally absurd as Teller's ideas.

Kantner skillfully weaves in the diet of the Inupiaq couple that his father lived with at Cape Thompson. What does this catalog of foods illustrate? (p. 12)

Points to consider:

  • It shows how all their food came from the land.
  • One gets an understanding of the flora and fauna and what the Inupiaq ate.
  • This also reveals his father's willingness to eat native foods and learn about the care and preparation of the game.

Although he returned to the "white world," Kantner speculates his father "had been changed" by life with the Inupiaq couple at Cape Thompson.  What do you think had changed him? (p. 13)

Points to consider:

  • Perhaps "living close to the land" and acquiring his own food and clothing had given him a new respect for life.
  • The "intense life" had instilled in him a respect for the "old Inupiaq ways" and it had gotten under his skin.

How is Howie's approach to summiting Denali (Mount McKinley) similar to his approach to life and living on the land? (p. 14)

Points to consider:

  • He's more interested in skiing and carrying the heavy packs than summiting.
  • The relationships with his friends are paramount to dominating the mountain.

Why do the choices of Erna (Howie's wife) disappoint her parents? (p. 16)

Points to consider:

  • Her decision to marry a Catholic and live out on the tundra didn't mesh with their life in Ohio.
  • Life far from Ohio, away from the traditional career-driven world, made little sense to her parents, who had lived through the Great Depression.

How does Kantner relate his life to "needle ice" and "massive icebergs"? (p. 18)

Points to consider:

  • The massive ice pushes and shoves against the needle ice and the ice has no choice but to move in random directions. Here he is connecting random events and lives with his birth.
  • The "lesson" of "small actions" having power and the "ripples" of large actions is beautifully connected to how Kantner has pieced together the story of his parents meeting and conceiving him.

Onion Portage was a crossing for thousands of years.  How is the draw for people similar or different? (p. 22-23)

Points to consider:

  • People are drawn by the history, natural resources, and wildlife.
  • Where the people once visited here in order to survive, the people now come here for sport or commercial purposes.

What does Kantner mean when he says, "In a time of Eskimos wanting to be like white people, these white people admired the old-life ways." (p. 24)

Points to consider:

  • With the modern world encroaching and approaching, the Inupiaq and other Alaskan Natives adopted new technology, and with schooling becoming mandatory for the children, the people settled into permanent villages and the "white" ways of living became a part of everyday life.
  • The newcomers were more interested in shedding the modern life and wanted to live off the land, at the time a virtual impossibility without Inupiaq traditional knowledge in the arctic environment.

What does Kantner mean when he says "communication between cultures is no easy thing?" (p. 24)

Points to consider:

  • On one hand he is talking about building where the wind blows constantly and his parents not getting advice from the locals that might have prevented this, and on the other he is talking about the difficulties that can ensue when people from one culture choose to live amongst another.

Why might Inupiaq children respond in "horror" at the fact that Kantner's parents "lived like Eskimos"? (p. 24)

Points to consider:

  • Perhaps their understanding of the old ways leads them to believe living like the Eskimos once did is too difficult, or they can't imagine living in a sod-house without modern amenities.
  • Knowledge of how the Eskimos once lived, even amongst modern Eskimo youth, is limited. The "horror" stems from the stories of struggle they have heard and a disinterest in learning the old ways.

How were people the "exotic creature" of the tundra? (p. 25)

Points to consider:

  • They arrived via dogsled or motor driven boats, snowmachines, or planes, and their arrivals were unpredictable and exciting, whereas the animals were just a part of everyday living and life on the tundra.
  • The weather and the animals were respected, while the arrival of some other human was more of a curiosity and exciting event.

Why does Kantner share the parts of the animals they ate, from "eyes and hearts" to paws? (p. 30).

Points to consider:

  • Here he is showing how they would use the whole animal, nothing left to waste.
  • In a time when we are often picky and wasteful, this extensive list of all the portions and various animals they ate illustrates how living off the land required complete resourcefulness.

What does the list of food from the tundra reveal? (p. 30)

Points to consider:

  • The abundance of food, from flora and fauna, available on the tundra.
  • The list shows his family's reliance on the land to survive.

What does he mean when he says that every breath his brother and he took reminded them they were "white, different, and therefore at least partially wrong"? (p. 30)

Points to consider:

  • Because they were younger, the two boys faced "the stone walls" of racism when they visited with the children in Kotzebue.
  • As a kid he felt like an outsider and "wrong" in that he didn't or couldn't quite belong.
  • His brother turns to science and math and Seth turns to studying the land to deal with the isolation.

The "Strangers to the North" come and go, but ultimately they return to the "land of humans."  Why? (p. 32-34)

Points to consider:

  • Perhaps their romanticized vision of the Arctic was too difficult, or they weren't prepared to permanently live away from people and rely so heavily on the resources of the land.
  • Howie's love of living on the edge and his diligence to avoid a job is Kantner's partial explanation for why his family didn't flee like the others.

How did life on the tundra create uncertainty? (p. 34)

Points to consider:

  • They were uncertain if their father would fall through the ice and not return, but there was also uncertainty in who would be moving in or moving away, what they would be eating, and what challenges the weather might bring.

What does the non-dairy creamer represent? (p. 36)

Points to consider:

  • This is an oxymoron. A powder substance meant to represent dairy cream for coffee seems symbolic of the outside world with all the foods with preservatives and chemicals (which his mother called "lieutenant demons").

How are the Inupiaq "riches" different from the gold and "finery" in fairy tales? (p. 39)

Points to consider:

  • Inupiaq wealth and possessions were only valuable if they helped to acquire more furs or food for survival. Gold and fine clothes have no value in procuring food or surviving in the cold.

What value did Snow Travelers and semi-automatic guns have over traditional weapons and dog teams? (p. 39)

Points to consider:

  • The snowmachines allowed for fast travel and enabled hunters to capture game quicker; the guns allowed for killing more game.

What does the story about Christmas presents reveal?  (p. 40-41)

Points to consider:

  • The simplicity of gifts and the value the kids placed on goods from outside their normal lives.
  • The mother had to go out of her way to order and hide presents for the boys, since they were so far from stores.
  • Their father would make gifts that dealt with living off the land, gifts that weren't special to the boys at the time.

Explain the irony of the non-dairy creamer weapons of mass destruction and the story of Edward Teller and the "wilderness of a more human nature" earlier in the chapter? (p. 9, 43)

Points to consider:

  • The boys are burning the creamer and making fiery nuclear weapons and destroying their prized possessions, the model planes and jets their mother had given them, in mock war.

Final Questions:

How is the story of Howie Kantner different from Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild?

Points to consider:

  • Howie goes into the wild prepared and already adept at survival. In addition, Howie learns from the Inupiaq and others the skills he will need to survive.

As the years have passed, why have Kantner's feelings about Dr. Giddings's archeological digging at Onion Portage changed? (p. 22)

How does your family story differ from Kantner's family story?

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