Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

Source of book: Audiobook from the library, but we also own this. 


Earlier this year, I attempted to get this audiobook for one of our trips. However, I accidentally requested Julie, the sequel. Since the two books are directly connected, it would have made zero sense to read the second one first. Instead, we listened to another, and I put this on the order list for later. Now that we had it, we listened to it for last weekend’s trip. 

Previously, we listened to another book by George, one of my all-time favorites as a kid, My Side of the Mountain. Jean George wrote books about kids in the outdoors - and she came by her knowledge honestly. Her father took her with him to all kinds of crazy places, including Alaska, where this book is set. She learned some Inuk culture and tradition from a woman, who also told her a story about her own life, one that, in modified form, became Julie of the Wolves. Combined with the story of a young girl who flees a child marriage was George’s experience with researchers who were trying to master the communication code of the wolves. 


The story is in three parts, and told out of sequence. We start with Miyax, (English name, Julie) a 13 year old girl, lost in the arctic tundra, having fled from her husband, and intending to find her way to a pen pal in San Francisco. She encounters a small wolf pack, and learns to communicate with them, eventually being essentially accepted into the pack. 


We then flash back to her childhood. After her mother dies, she goes to live with an aunt, who is cold and unaffectionate, and who becomes even worse when her father disappears (and is presumed dead) while on a seal hunt. Miserable and lonely, she decides to follow her father’s parting advice, and enter a marriage with a young man, son of her father’s friend, after the Inuk tradition. (She can be married at age 13, and, as it turns out, the marriages are treated as flexible - many are not consummated, and if the parties don’t like each other, they can just move on.) 


The problem is, as she discovers, her husband has some sort of intellectual disability. When his peers tease him for not consummating the marriage, he tries to rape Julie. She borrows some supplies from a friend, and heads off by herself, to try to get to the nearest town with an airport. 


After we get this back story, we get the rest of her journey, with the wolves, back to human civilization. I won’t give any further spoilers. 


The book won the Newbery in 1973, but was considered controversial. The attempted rape scene, while not graphic, is a bit disturbing, and I imagine some kids found it scary. Honestly, though, The Giver is the Newbery winner that freaks me out the most, even as an adult. 


Like George’s other books, this one straddles the line between realism and fantasy. The details are mostly realistic, and George took very seriously the research and cultural details, in order to get them right, and, in this case, portray Inuk culture accurately and without condescension. The fantasy part, of course, is the survival of a child under extreme conditions, with few tools, a lot of luck, and no human assistance. 


While My Side of the Mountain is a gentle book, with few serious threats and a lot of wonder and fun, Julie of the Wolves is a bit more harrowing. Miyax comes close to starving, nearly loses everything, and feels in peril most of the book. This isn’t better or worse, but just a different feel from the other book. 


I did feel that My Side of the Mountain had a better character arc. We are left with a “will she or won’t she” ending, and thus we have no resolution as to how Miyax/Julia resolves the conflict between her desire to be a traditional Inuk, and her competing desire to be part of the modern world. In part, that means the question of how she deals with gendered roles and expectations. In a lot of ways, like the author herself, she wishes to live as a boy, a wild hunter. And certainly not as a domestic wife. I thought that the portrayal of her inner life was well written - George treats child characters with more respect than many authors, allowing them complex, ambiguous, and ambivalent emotions. 


I also appreciated that George correctly portrays the role of the “alpha” wolf of the pack. So often, in our culture, we associate “alpha” with being violent or winning a struggle. In fact, the role of an alpha in the pack is the one who protects and leads, and status is attained not by bullying others, but by carefully building social ties. While certain antisocial wolves occasionally need to be met with force from the pack, for the most part, social status comes from the ability to provide for the good of the pack. 


Our audiobook was narrated by Christina Moore. The book has little dialogue, so the key was capturing Julie’s voice, and I thought Moore did a fine job of that. My one quibble with the audiobook was that the disks were introduced briefly by the stock corporate voice - and the volume level was a good bit higher than the rest. So, you get blasted at the beginning and end of each disk. I think a lot of audiobook companies could use a bit of work on both compression and signal matching. But Moore’s work was good, overall I approve of this version. 


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