Julie of the Wolves is the story of a 13-year-old Eskimo girl in Alaska named Miyax who is torn between the “old ways” of the traditional Eskimo people and the new ways that are taking hold of the larger communities in Alaska. When the novel opens, Miyax is lost on Alaska’s North Slope, having run away from home. Hungry and desperate, she attempts to communicate with a wolf pack, ingratiating herself to them until they accept her as one of their own. The reader soon learns that Miyax is trying to make her way to the coast, where she can hop a ship to San Francisco, the home of her pen pal (who knows Miyax by the name Julie). The pen pal has invited Miyax/Julie to come live with her family in a beautiful white house with a pink bedroom. But the more time Miyax spends around the wolves, living off the land, and the closer she comes geographically to civilization, the more she wonders which path she should take.
I’m of two minds about this book. On the plus side, I love the interaction with the wolves. Author Jean Craighead George was raised in a family of naturalists and spent a summer observing wolves in Barrow, Alaska. She’s written a number of books that focus on nature, including the provocatively titled Who Really Killed Cock Robin? I’m not an expert, but from what I know about wolves, the interactions and hierarchy described in the novel are essentially accurate. Not to say that a human could become one of the pack, but the basic interactions are plausible. I also applaud the conflict between Miyax’s two selves, the modern girl longing for the pink bedroom vs. the young Inuit using the skills she learned from her father to survive.
I’m finding it hard to shake a few things, though. The book ends so abruptly and in such a depressing manner, I’m pretty sure I’d have hated it as a child. Civilization is portrayed as a place where humans shoot wolves from helicopters just for kicks (a practice that is still happening). If you can read about the wolf pack, then watch their leader Amaroq be heartlessly massacred and not come to the conclusion that civilization sucks, then I’m going to take odds that I know how you voted in the last presidential election. That civilization is brutal is a worthy message, but I’m struggling to come to terms with Miyax’s decision to return in the end. The novel has two sequels, so perhaps those shed some more light on her motivation, but Julie of the Wolves should be able to stand on its own. For me, it falls short.
On a different note, why is it Julie of the Wolves and not Miyax of the Wolves? What was the author’s intention? Is the message really that the old ways area dead, or does Julie just play better for the audience? And now I’m going to be a bit unfair given that this novel was written in 1972, but I’m having trouble reconciling that an award-winning book about an Alaskan girl was written by a middle-class woman from Washington, D.C. who graduated from Penn State. I believe that great books can come from all sources; you don’t necessarily have to be part of a given socio-economic group to represent them, but–lets face it–it helps. Maybe in 1972 it was enough that a mainstream book was written about Indigenous Peoples. Maybe I’m just disappointed I couldn’t use Julie of the Wolves for the Own Voices bingo square.
You know which square it would work for? Banned books! Yes, a story about a girl and a wolf pack has been banned, apparently because of a scene where Julie’s pre-pubescent husband (an arranged marriage) assaults her by knocking her down, ripping her dress, and kissing her. Personally, I think that if 13-year-old girls in some parts of the world are living such nightmares, children in first world countries should be able to read about them.
This review has been another entry in my Little Free Library series!