1977 Honor: Abel’s Island (of solitude)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4.5/5

In William Steig’s Abel’s Island, a mouse is whisked away from his wife in a raging flood and stuck on an island for months on end, trying to find a way to get back home. Isolated from everything he knows, Abel is forced to be creative in order to try to get across the river that is keeping him trapped while avoiding a pesky owl, befriending a forgetful frog, and surviving a harsh winter. This book is similar to the movie Cast Away, but with mice!

The plot situates Abel in an isolated position – an island where he has no contact with any of his friends. As a result, Abel’s Island is an introspective novel that lets readers ponder how loneliness can physically and mentally affect a person. Absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder for Abel as he continuously has to come up with more creative ways to get himself across the river as he becomes more and more desperate to get home. He deals with his loneliness in an admirable way, and his steadfastness and loyalty make for strong traits in a main character.

Abel’s Island is a story driven more by thoughtful characters than all-out action. This is an ideal feel good story with a happy ending that parents can read aloud with their third or fourth grade readers. The soothing writing style and short page count make this a good read for a rainy day.

1984 Honor: The Sign of the Beaver

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver is a story of survival and friendship among two vastly different cultures. When his father leaves one day on family business, twelve-year-old Matt is suddenly left alone to guard their cabin in the wilderness with no weapons and having no way to hunt for food. With his father gone for longer than expected, Matt begins to develop a friendship with Attean, a boy from the local Beaver clan, and begins to learn about the Native American way of life in exchange for teaching Attean how to read.

The growing friendship between the two young boys lends this children’s book some gravitas that takes it beyond a simple survival tale. Despite coming from two completely different cultures, they bond over their enjoyment of a Robinson Crusoe book and their misconceptions of each other begin to be challenged.

The harshness of the settler lifestyle is intriguing to read about, as Matt is put into dangerous situations like trying to figure out if he can trust a stranger who wants to stay the night in his cabin or finding ways to deal with the constant fear of wild animals potentially getting into his food stores or attacking him.

The only really negative thing about the book was that I felt the Indian tribe was written in a very stereotypical way and may not be as historically accurate or nuanced as it could have been. Despite this, it was nice to see a Newbery Honor book paint Native American interactions with white settlers in a positive light, unlike The Matchlock Gun and Daniel Boone, as well as the author’s melancholic foreshadowing of the continual takeover of Indian land and how that affected Indian tribes. The ending highlights these ideas to great effect as it ends on a bittersweet note with Matt forced to choose one life over the other.

Overall, this is a decent survival story with characters that are easy to sympathize with. Young readers will be able to identify with Matt’s struggles while also introducing them to how settlers and Native Americans interacted and lived in the 18th century.

 

1973: Julie of the Wolves (of wolves and men)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George is a slow-paced tale of survival in the wilds of Alaska, telling the story a young runaway girl who becomes adopted by wolves.

This children’s book lacked a strong narrative that could move the plot along at a quick pace, but made up for it with its thematic emphasis on nature and animals. I wish I could have enjoyed this book more, but it felt like such a chore to get through with its long paragraphs of description. Without a doubt, the best parts of the novel were the illustrations of Julie’s interaction with the wolf pack.

The setup of the novel is somewhat disorientating since it thrusts the reader immediately into the action with Julie lost in the Alaskan wilderness. It’s perplexing to not know exactly why she is there since only small tidbits of her past are doled out at a time, making it hard to care much about her struggles until later on in the book. It’s not until the middle section that her back story is revealed, which helps break up the monotonous overuse of description. Without getting much background about the character until later on, I found it hard to care about her situation.

The main issue I had with this book was the pacing. With its introspective nature, much of the novel follows Julie’s internal thoughts and observation of the wolves’ socialization and pack structure. While this part was interesting to read about, the overload of description makes this section a bit of the bore.

This novel deals with themes of humanity’s aggression against nature. There are several key passages at the end of the book that depict the idea of human civilization destroying the natural world – animals and all. This book excelled at showing Julie’s dismay and disillusionment of American society, and throughout the novel, Julie wavers between keeping true to her Eskimo roots or adapting to American civilization. There are no easy choices for her in the novel; sadly, her final decision ends up being a compromise. Don’t expect any happy endings or anything resembling happiness at all in this story of human survival.

Recommended for survival story enthusiasts and animal lovers.