John Hildebrand's "A Northern Front: New and Selected Essays" is a collection that explores the lives...

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John Hildebrand’s “A Northern Front: New and Selected Essays” (Borealis Books, 205 pp., $22.95) is a collection that explores the lives of many diverse societies in the northern areas of America, especially Alaska and the states along the U.S.-Canada border. Highlights include stories of hunting deer, an expedition to track a pack of wolves, an exploration of the effects of opening Alaska to oil drilling, and an adventure whose sole purpose was to get lost.

Most of the pieces here deal with different ideas of home and how a home sometimes must change. Some detail Hildebrand’s wilderness adventures, as when he follows a river made famous by Ernest Hemingway, or discovers the thrill of tracking wolves in order to determine their vulnerable yet increasing population. Hildebrand utilizes a dry wit and a journalist’s eye in his essays; each is told with such detail and expression that the reader is instantly wrapped in the subject.

Author reading

John Hildebrand will read from “A Northern Front: New and Selected Essays,” 4:30 p.m. tomorrow, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or

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Hildebrand uses his essays to explore both sides of many issues that complicate economic development in rural areas. In the title essay, Hildebrand describes the views of two societies that would be affected by drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: the Inupiat, a coastal tribe whose members are mostly in favor of opening the area to drilling, and the Gwich’in Tribe, who live in Alaska’s interior and who oppose the project. Interestingly, each community supports or opposes drilling for the same reasons: increasing money from oil revenues means development and a change in lifestyle for both societies.

In many of his essays, Hildebrand explores the distinction between hunting for sport and hunting for necessity. He acknowledges that hunting to live is a way of life no longer necessary for most Americans: ” ‘Sport’ implies gamesmanship and trophy mongering — killing as fun. … But few people hunt today out of sheer necessity; it’s almost always a choice, in other words, a sport.”

Hildebrand admits to hunting for sport, but in his essay “Deer in the Tree,” he explores the methods of those who oppose hunting. By joining an anti-hunting party whose tactics include seeking hunters in the wild and inundating them with ethical questions about killing animals, Hildebrand observes one opposer’s stealthlike movements and connects her objective with the hunter’s: to seek her prey.

In “Coming Home,” he visits a small community of Hmong immigrants living in Wisconsin and examines how their hunting techniques, as well as their mere presence, confuses and angers local hunters. The Hmong struggle to find a balance between their traditional ways while learning and respecting the ways of their new home. They hunt squirrels with the same enthusiasm as other hunters seek deer and elk. However, their tactics infuriate local hunters because they scare off those same deer and elk that have been hunted in the area for generations.

In “Wading the Big Two-Hearted,” Hildebrand tracks Hemingway’s steps to Seney, a small town in Michigan where Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River” is set. Although the train doesn’t go directly to Seney as it once did, and the river doesn’t actually go through the town, Hildebrand learns that to follow in the steps of Hemingway is to discover the journey, not the destination.

In most of his essays, Hildebrand addresses ideas of home, either by describing the loss of a home that had been in the family for generations or by portraying what it’s like to be finally accepted in a new country. Other essays are true-to-life tales of the struggle between wilderness preservation and economic development. In each of them, Hildebrand searches for the balance that needs to be struck between respect for ways past and the unstoppable need for growth.