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julie of the wolves

21 july 2011

Julie of the Wolves is a strongly cross-ethnic, vividly realistic children's novel about survival – both personal and cultural – in a marginal, contested environment. Nothing demonstrates the cultural watershed of the late '60s and early '70s quite as dramatically as the shift in tone between Newbery winners of just a few years before and texts like Julie of the Wolves. Onion John, The Cricket in Times Square, and It's Like This, Cat represent American "others" in different ways, sometimes sympathetic and sometimes parodic, but always from the perspective that WASPs know best and are the healthy, normative, natural heirs to a Western civilization conceived of as self-evidently good. Jean Craighead George, though herself an Eastern-Establishment writer with a three-barrelled name, isn't so sure that WASPs have the interests of the planet, its peoples, or ultimately even themselves rightly figured out.

Julie of the Wolves is a survival story, a feminist fable, an eco-novel, and an ambivalent exploration of cultural identity in a rapidly changing American wilderness. It's a novel of ideas, openly rhetorical; it takes no middle-American cultural certainties for granted, and deliberately tries to defamiliarize a "mainstream" American cultural audience by throwing the reader, along with its dual-identitied protagonist Julie/Miyax, into a landscape that she knows as second nature and the implied reader knows not at all.

Such a novel isn't for everyone, though it's very well-done of its kind. It doesn't preach; its moral compass is highly relative. But it does frame almost every scene pedagogically and politically. Nothing ever just happens for the sake of immediate suspense in Julie of the Wolves; we're constantly being taught about nature, about Native Alaskans, about political and environmental controversies.

Of particular interest is a watershed scene late in the novel, where Miyax (as the title character almost always prefers to call herself) revises her fascination with Anglo technologies in favor of Native ones:

The old Eskimos were scientists too. By using the plants, animals, and temperature, they had changed the harsh Arctic into a home, a feat as incredible as sending rockets to the moon. She smiled. The people at seal camp had not been as outdated and old-fashioned as she had been led to believe. No, on the contrary, they had been wise. They had adjusted to nature instead of to man-made gadgets. (121)
Oddly enough, Miyax has just been marveling at how "sleds, spears, harpoons, ulo, and needles" (121) – the "ulo" being the "woman's knife" that allows her to fabricate other necessities – allow her people to survive in the Arctic. But she codes "man-made gadgets" as exclusively the tools of Anglo-Americans. Her "needles, ulo, and boots," just as technological as any other human equipment, "were now more wonderful to Miyax than airplanes, ocean liners, and great wide bridges" (122). But these tools seem naturalized to Miyax. She associates them with the completely non-technological strategies of the wolfpack that has (in curiously Kiplingesque fashion) adopted her. As she then tells the dead "lone wolf" Jello, culled by Darwinian competition, "You've got to be a super-wolf to live" (122).

This is heady and somewhat confused rhetoric. The novel ends with Julie/Miyax headed toward her father and Western civilization again, but in a most ambivalent, wavering decision. (A sequel that I haven't yet read gives her room to turn and turn again, I should imagine.) It's a measure of how far American literature and public rhetoric had moved that this conflicted thought-experiment of a novel should win the Newbery Medal. It marks the beginning of a long epoch of American uncertainty about our manifest destiny.

George, Jean Craighead. Julie of the Wolves. 1972. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.