Winterdance Summary

Gary Paulsen


  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Winterdance Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Winterdance by Gary Paulsen.

Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod is American author Gary Paulsen’s 1994 account of participating in the iconic race. Paulsen, best known as a novelist, is recognized for his coming of age stories that are set in the wilderness and target the young adult audience. He has authored more than two hundred books and scores of articles and short stories. He was the recipient of the Margaret Edwards Award from the American Library Association in 1997 for his lifetime contribution to the teen demographic.

Gary Paulsen and his wife Ruth are facing difficult financial times. They live in a cabin in the Minnesota woods. Gary uses a team of dogs to pull a sled in order to tend to his trap lines. He bonds with the team of dogs and over time begins to take them on longer and longer outings, sometimes staying out for days on end. After an especially long journey, he comes home and places the dogs in their kennel. He goes to enter the cabin but finds that he is unable to do so. When Ruth comes out, she finds Gary sitting with the dogs. He tells Ruth that during the times he is out with the dogs, he feels as if he never wants to come back.

Before this, Gary and Ruth had discussed the Iditarod and wondered if the mushers who took part in it were sane or not. As she listens to Gary now, Ruth realizes that he has already decided that he will compete. Gary has only run his relatively small team of dogs and is therefore seriously lacking in experience for such an undertaking. If he is to participate in the Iditarod, Gary will need a team of dogs totaling fifteen or sixteen. He owns far fewer than that. Having resolved to attempt the competition, he buys three Canadian sled dogs: Devil, Ortho, and Murphy. On his way home from acquiring the dogs, Gary realizes that these Eskimo sled dogs are quite different from the family pets. After just a few miles, Devil and Ortho manage to chew their way out of the kennels they are in and begin to destroy the back of the truck. Gary realizes that someone will need to ride in the back with the dogs to keep them in the kennels. Ruth tells Gary it should be him as he is the one who will need to get to know them well in order to run the race. Gary is not happy with this arrangement but agrees. Once he is in the back, Ruth starts driving home. The dogs at once jump on Gary, and he needs to defend himself. He is already learning about the relationship he will have to develop with the new team.

Trying to gain experience, Gary goes on several runs with his team. He experiences some wrecks and sometimes loses the team, ending up walking home alone. The dogs have no trouble finding their way back when this happens and arrive at home well before Gary. During a late night outing, Gary and his team run into skunks, resulting in Gary’s needing to spend the night in the kennel with the dogs. Surprisingly, this helps him increase his bond with the team; even after the odor from the skunks is no longer a problem, he continues to sleep outside with the dogs.

Once they find out that Gary is planning to enter the Iditarod, members of the community offer their support with donations of food, money, and necessary equipment. A neighbor volunteers to drive Gary and his dogs to the race in Anchorage in his truck. The neighbor then provides financial support when Gary’s funds begin to run out. Two months before the race, Gary arrives in Anchorage and finds that there is still a lot that he needs to learn about the Iditarod. He continually tries to learn as much as possible about the race from everyone he comes into contact with. The first day, Gary takes a wrong turn, adding over more than a hundred miles to the run for him. It takes him seventeen and a half days to complete the Iditarod during which he suffers from freezing conditions, hallucinations, fierce winds, and lack of sleep. He also becomes more introspective, realizing he is more satisfied leading a simple life than being concerned with money and materialistic things. At the end of the book, Gary is diagnosed with a heart disease that will plague his life. He asks a friend to take all of the dogs except for Cookie who was the leader of the team.

Gary Paulsen’s Winterdance was praised by The Washington Post: “It is hard to find a page in this laconic book without an insight, hard to find a word that could be cut without loss. Halfway through reading it, when I knew I’d be finished too soon, I yearned for more: How about more race history, profiles of other mushers, more stories? By the last page, I had been told as much as I needed to know, a bit more than my heart could easily absorb. Winterdance is beautiful and it is very funny and it is about men and dogs and their souls.”