Nostalgia Friday: Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George

Sometimes it isn’t possible to review books objectively. Mostly for me, this happens when I reread a book that I first read as a child. The story and the writing are so wrapped up in nostalgia that it can be very hard for me to see it as though I’m reading it for the first time, to appreciate what others might see if they’ve never read it before, and to properly acknowledge dated humour or references that are no longer applicable to modern life. Is the book actually good, or am I only enjoying it because I know I enjoyed it before? There are some books I’ve been able to view objectively, or at least as objectively as I could, but even then, I have to admit that I might not have given them even a glance had I come across them today instead of ten or more years ago.

With that in mind, it seems only fair to give these books a shot from a nostalgic perspective, and to clearly state that my reviews of them are tinged by youthful enjoyment. Thus I figured that it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing to make a feature of this. If not a regular one, then certainly semi-regular.

And so, I give you a book I first read in elementary school, back in the early 1990s. How does it hold up?

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Author’s website
Publication date – 1972

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Miyax, like many adolescents, is torn. But unlike most, her choices may determine whether she lives or dies. At 13, an orphan, and unhappily married, Miyax runs away from her husband’s parents’ home, hoping to reach San Francisco and her pen pal. But she becomes lost in the vast Alaskan tundra, with no food, no shelter, and no idea which is the way to safety. Now, more than ever, she must look hard at who she really is. Is she Miyax, Eskimo girl of the old ways? Or is she Julie (her “gussak”-white people-name), the modernized teenager who must mock the traditional customs? And when a pack of wolves begins to accept her into their community, Miyax must learn to think like a wolf as well. If she trusts her Eskimo instincts, will she stand a chance of surviving?

Thoughts: The first thing people might be struck by, if they first read this book now, will be the outdated expressions and terminology. For example, Eskimo. The ‘modern teenager’ that Miyax struggles with is a teenager from the time this book was written, which is the 1970s. For those reasons alone, this book loses some points to modern readers. It’s very hard to relate to a main character in a different time and from a different culture that isn’t necessarily being portrayed very accurately. Doubly so when that character from another time and culture spends a good part of the book learning to communicate with animals in a way that, to be blunt, typically takes far longer and is far more complex than it’s represented here. It can give a lot of false impressions.

On the other hand, to older readers, this can be an interesting look at how people 30-40 years ago actually viewed another culture, so there’s a weird sort of anthropological double-interest thing going on here.

I have to say, though, that this book was probably one of the first to get me interested not only in other cultures (especially ones with more tribal/traditional methods of life) but also in survivalist fiction. Miyax is trapped in the Arctic, away from civilization and amenities, and thanks to an unsetting sun, cannot even navigate by stars to find her way to safety. With very little in the way of supplies, she tries to survive, eventually befriending a small local wolf pack and learning to communicate with them through gestures and posturing in order to get them to help her.

For all that it sounds simple, though, there are many elements of this book that are dark and hard-hitting. The reason Miyax runs away from home in the first place is because she married at the age of 13 and her husband, a rather dull-witted boy, tries to rape her. The text actually doesn’t make it clear whether he just attempted to or actually succeeded, but that doesn’t take away from the trauma of the situation. Miyax believes her father to be dead, and the wolf she considers her adoptive father is later shot and killed by hunters looking to make a quick buck from the fur trade. Miyax is almost killed herself during this event.

A more subtle darkness exists in the very last line of the book, one that can sadden and disillusion many. Miyax spends the book affirming and reaffirming that she is a person of tradition, that she doesn’t want to follow the ways of the white people who disrespect her culture and world around her. While she has a “white” name, Julie, she dislikes it and very often refuses to use it. She is proud of her heritage and her culture. After finding out that her father is alive and well but has adopted white ways, she makes the decision to return to the tundra and to live on her own, traditionally, hunting for her food and avoiding white ways as best she can.

And no sooner does Miyax decide that than the bird companion she befriended, the thing that represents the spirit of the wild to her now that her adopted wolf-father is gone, dies.

And the final line of the book calls her Julie.

Her entire mental pattern shifted there, with that revelation. Her pride evaporated, her strength crumbled, and all that she had clung to in the wild was gone. What choice did she have but to return to the father who forsook the old ways, thus forsaking the old ways herself, and to symbolically give herself a new life. Even when I first read that, it made me sad, though I couldn’t fully articulate why.

The author manages to cram some very complex and deep issues into such a short books, which is wonderful to see. However, it seems that the range of the book goes from brushes with things great and deep to long periods of somewhat shallow observation, liberally sprinkled with interesting survival methods and trivia about life in the Arctic (some of which has been proven wrong, but was believed to be true when the book was written). I can’t deny that the story is interesting and the messages are ones that people ought to pay attention to, but it has such distance from today’s events that I think a great deal of the books high points might be lost on modern readers.

Still, I enjoyed it then, and I still enjoyed it now.

(Book provided for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

One comment on “Nostalgia Friday: Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George

  1. You know, I'm not certain that teenagers today can't relate to it. I read this seven years ago in school and though my classmates and I found several aspects to be outdated, there was a certain charm to it nonetheless. I always liked the sequels more, though, because I felt they gave Julie/Miyax (and the wolves, for that matter) a stronger personality.

    Regarding the dark aspects of the book, I don't recall fully understanding them as a kid. It was only a few years later, as a teenager, that I realized the implications of much of the book.

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