Saturday, March 8, 2014

Reading: Julie of the Wolves

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Julie of the Wolves, awarded the Newbery Medal in 1973, was one of those books that always caught my eye from the library shelves when I was growing up.  One time, I even checked it out and made it to about the sixth page before giving up and moving on to something else.  I was a strong reader, but I just couldn't connect with Julie of the Wolves.  With all of my failed attempts at reading it, I decided to give it one more go.  Surely, as a twenty-six year old, I would be able to successfully finish reading this prized novel by author Jean Craighead George and published by Harper Trophy Books.  And I did!  While I certainly became engrossed in the novel and in the struggle that Miyax endured in the Arctic tundra and with her family, and while the wolves in the story took up a large space in my heart, I still found myself struggling to enjoy the writing and had a difficult time maintaining focus on the text.  

The story of Julie of the Wolves is quite compelling.  Miyax is raised in an Eskimo village, and when her mother dies, her father, Kapugen, takes her to a seal camp.  The two live happily observing "traditional" Eskimo ways and living according to nature. One day, Miyax's Aunt Martha goes to the seal camp with a letter stating that Miyax must go to school where she is known as "Julie." Kapugen tells his daughter that she must live with her Aunt Martha in a more Americanized village.  At first, she struggles to assimilate into her new school but eventually makes new friends.  She has a pen pal named Amy in San Francisco that she desires to meet; Amy, she says, is "daylight." When she is 13, she is arranged to marry a boy named Daniel, who appears to have some sort of mental disability.  After he forcefully tries to "mate" with her, she runs away and lives on the Arctic tundra with a pack of wolves.  After observing the wolves, she learns how to communicate with them and how to live as a member of the pack.  

Besides telling a story, Julie of the Wolves is a commentary about the decline in traditional Eskimo culture.  American culture is greatly disregarded by Miyax, who shuns things such as "frozen dinners" and electricity.  The decline in traditional Eskimo culture also created an increase in killing animals for sport, including the lead wolf of Miyax's pack, Amaroq, in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the book.  The Eskimo culture is completely unfamiliar to me, so I appreciated having the opportunity to read about it.  There is also so much more that I want to know after reading this book.  I wonder how Eskimos live today and how the majority of their lives have changed due to Americanization?  And has that change been by choice, or was it forced upon the Eskimos?  Further, are there any Eskimo tribes that are traditional in the same sense that Miyax was?  Julie of the Wolves seems to paint a true portrait of Eskimo life and was written by an authority on the subject who studied and researched animal behavior extensively.  It leaves me wanting to know more, and as I have stated in previous posts, I feel an author that leaves its readers thirsty for more knowledge has created something special.  

However, as I mentioned before, there were times when I struggled to focus on the content of the book.  Unfamiliar names and places often crept up, and at times, I felt like I was reading a research paper instead of a realistic fiction novel for children.  It's commendable to educate even through fiction, but I felt that many of the facts were isolated against the rest of the text and didn't fit seamlessly with the story.  Further, many of Miyax's actions were written about in detail, such as creating new boots or cooking caribou stew.  I got bogged down in some of the details and a little bit bored, admittedly.  But those details didn't take away from the greater message that I abstracted from this book. 

Julie of the Wolves was written for children ages ten and up.  As a third grade teacher, I wouldn't read this book to my students, as it would be beyond most of their comprehension levels.  While the incident between Julie and her husband, Daniel, is briefly mentioned, I would not feel comfortable reading this to my students. Interestingly, this short paragraph has caused Julie of the Wolves to be banned from many libraries and schools.  This incident is more violent than anything else and provides the rationale for Julie leaving her husband.  The author states that she feels honored to be on a list of banned books with other great reads and that she used this incident to show how motivated and independent Julie is, just like the wolves she lives with.  It is her independent spirit and intelligence that make Julie a role model for impressionable readers.  

Still, for older students, Julie of the Wolves is a great book to use across the curriculum with a study of ecosystems, particularly the arctic tundra, or about food chains.  This book also teaches the lesson that there is not always going to be a happy ending; Miyax has many struggles to face in her personal life outside of the wolf pack, and I feel that she relates to the wolves more than the people in the story.  I was disappointed with the ending, as it certainly did not make me feel good!  I would have really liked for Julie to make it to San Francisco to visit her friend Amy and learn that not all Americans are bad.  But the ending of the novel allowed the author to make her message more prominent.  

After reading this novel, I feel slightly more understanding of Eskimo culture and of the behaviors seen in a wolf pack.  But I still have a lot more to learn!  I am also interested in reading the sequel, Julie. If you would like to learn more about either of these, you can check out Julie of the Wolves at your local library!  

1 comment:

  1. This looks like a really good book! Thanks for the post!