Survival stories for adolescent readers are usually about growing up and leaving childhood behind. There's an element of that in Jean Craighead George's Julie of the Wolves, but there's also a lot more—the book isn't so much about loss of innocence as about the loss of a way of life, the transition of one culture to another.
The novel is presented in three sections. In the first, "Amaroq, the wolf," a 13-year-old Upick girl named Miyax seeks the protection of a wolf pack on the Alaskan tundra. She's just run away from her child-husband, Daniel, and is making her way to the coast so she can go south to San Francisco where she will meet her pen pal, Amy.
But en route she loses her way and finds herself in the snow without food. She knows plenty about survival having been taught by her father Kapugen, one of the great Eskimo hunters, but she has no real way to obtain food. So she learns how to communicate with the wolves, is accepted by them, and lives in their midst for several months.
Part II, "Miyax, the girl," is a series of memories of her childhood, years living with Aunt Martha and attending school, and brief time as the child-wife of Daniel. Unable to live with the boy, who's both half-witted and rough, Miyax enlists the help of her one friend and heads west toward the coast.
Finally, in the third part Miyax leaves her wolfpack. This section is called "Kapugen, the hunter," and in it Miyax discovers the father she hasn't seen in years and thought was dead is in fact alive and living on the coast in an Eskimo village. Miyax is faced with the choice to re-enter civilization and give up the old Eskimo ways, or to live alone on the tundra without her wolfpack which is now leaderless because human hunters have killed Amaroq and Kapu, the pack's alphas.
At first, Julie of the Wolves seems like just another adventure story. The fact that the girl lives with wolves adds an element that makes it a unique adventure story, but the fight to stay warm and find food are familiar to fans of Robinson Crusoe, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Call It Courage.
By Part II, however, there's obviously more going on. Miyax looks back on her life and its contrasts, particularly the contrast between the old Eskimo ways and the new civilized ways. Kapugen taught Miyax to hunt and fish, the traditional dances, how to live in the wilderness, and the importance of the past. In the new world of school, tourists, and Americanization, nothing is simple and the old ways and places are threatened by mechanization and sport hunting.
Everything comes together in Part III. When Miyax finds Kapugen, she finds him still a hunter, but she finds him with a white wife, a snowmobile, and the trappings of the new Alaska, the encroaching civilization of the white gussaks. At first, Miyax feels betrayed, that her father who represented the old ways has capitulated to the new ways and is no longer a mighty Eskimo.
But where can she go? Her wolfpack is dispersed, and there is nothing left on the tundra, not even her pet bird Tornait who dies in her hands. Then Miyax, who's sung to the wolves and to herself throughout her adventures, sings a dirge for the hour of the wolf and of the Eskimo, and returns to the house of her father.
So where does Julie come in? The book is called Julie of the Wolves, not Miyax of the Wolves, after all. George explains at one point that Eskimos have two names: an Eskimo name, and a gussak name. Miyax's gussak name is Julie, and though she loathes that name and never uses it, by the last page she is Julie of the wolves, and Miyax is left behind on the tundra.
George's depiction of the waning of old Eskimos ways is nothing short of brilliant. Without ever having to preach, she shows how the old ways have given way to the new, and how the Eskimos, so adept at survival, have realized that assimilation is the true path of survival for their people and their customs.
This isn't a totally one-sided romanticization, either. While many of the old Eskimo ways are shown to be good and even better than the new ways, many are shown to be as barbaric as they actually are. For instance, there's a brief scene in Part II in which Daniel attempts to rape Miyax (nothing graphic or too explicit), showing the bankruptcy of the child-marriage system.
We never forget, however, that Julie of the Wolves is an adventure story. George weaves her themes so subtly throughout her novel that they unfold in the very fabric of the story. This makes both the themes and the story more interesting, and elevates what would ordinarily be a good book to the level of a modern classic.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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