Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5
Julie of the Wolves, the 1973 Newbery Medal Winner, is far more than just another “growing up with/because of animals” story. The author, Jean Craighead George, presents an examination of serious issues, from the struggle to fit into the expansionist American culture to what impacts non-subsistence hunting has on the environment.
The book opens in the present, with the title character, Julie/Miyax, lost on the North Slope of Alaska. Because her father had taught her traditional Inuit skills like hunting and preparation of hides, she survives on her own. Julie befriends a wolf pack by mimicking wolf body language and movements; this greatly enhances her survival efforts, as the wolves provide meat. After the wolves leave for their winter wanderings, Julie feels bereft. This is when we find out why a lone girl is out in the wilderness by herself. The tl;dr version is that, thinking her father dead, she escaped an unpleasant aunt by getting married at 13. When her mentally lacking “husband” tried to rape her, she fled, shucking off the dresses and language of white American culture in favor of Inuit culture. Following that flash-back, Julie gathers the belongings she prepared and heads toward civilization. A chance conversation with a passing family informs Julie that her beloved father is still alive. She makes her way to him, leaves upon seeing how Americanized he’s become, but returns because she feels that Inuit ways are no longer tenable. The book ends with her abandoning her subsistence lifestyle.
This book was fascinating to me on several levels. As someone with a background in anthropology, Julie’s movement between cultures interested me. She was raised immersed in Inuit culture, with little exposure to white (gossak) culture. Then, her aunt shows up with an order forcing Julie to attend school. Julie takes to English, and enjoys corresponding with a girl in San Francisco. Following the trauma with husband Daniel, Julie rejects English and gossak culture. Based on her experience in the wilderness, particularly the gunning down of the alpha wolf by a man in a plane, Julie comes to hate gossak culture, viewing it as disruptive and wasteful. However, when she attempts to leave it behind after finding her father, the death of her bird convinces her that her Inuit life is not sustainable. Each of Julie’s transitions is marked by a change between languages and names. She’s trying to find herself in a culture very much in transition, with subsistence hunting being replaced by tourism and technology.
Julie of the Wolves also carries a strong hallmark of the environmental movement. The author spends extensive amounts of space on description of the natural environment and on interactions between species, including a long paragraph in which Julie explains that the sport killing of wolves will result in overgrazing by caribou and the death of most of the ecosystem due to the imbalance created. While the nature descriptions can become tedious, they are an intimate part of the book, forming the backdrop of Julie’s quotidian existence. In the end, it is the death of nature, symbolized by Julie’s pet bird, that forces her back into white culture.
Overall, although overly descriptive at times, this book treats with tough issues. Although there’s no happy ending in this book, Julie gains autonomy and learns to rely upon herself. Though circumstances proscribe some options, Julie makes conscious decisions on who she wants to be, not letting external forces determine that. She develops deep relationships, albeit primarily with animals rather than humans.
I’d recommend this book primarily for late elementary or middle school students. There is child marriage, a scene with attempted sexual assault, and one instance (between secondary characters) of domestic violence. The overall themes are also appropriate to adolescents/more mature children. That said, this is a fantastic book for children searching for their own identity, perhaps especially those with ties to multiple cultures. In addition, the vivid descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness and its animals make Julie of the Wolves a great choice for children who love nature.