Hanging With the Wolves

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
Grade: B+

Julie of the Wolves is the story of a 13-year-old Eskimo girl from Alaska who runs away from home because of her abusive husband. She is heading for San Francisco, where her pen pal lives, but gets lost on the North Slope of Alaska. Using the skills taught to her by her father, she befriends a pack of wolves, who help feed and protect her along the way.

I decided to read this book because I’ve had it since I was a child but I don’t remember ever reading it. It was probably bought for me because it won the Newbery in 1973. Browsing among the reviews at an online bookstore, I was surprised to see how many reviewers questioned how this could have won the award. I think the answer should be obvious. It’s about a young person showing strength and ability in the face of tremendous challenges and it also highlights a dying culture. Doesn’t that sound exactly like the kind of book that would win an award?

The book’s weaknesses are its beginning and its end. At the start of the book, before you really know the main character, Miyax, you are expected to believe that she can communicate with wolves. Later, as you get to know her, the story is more plausible, but you don’t really learn much about her history until the second part. As I recall, you have to read a long way before finding out why the story title contains the name “Julie” rather than “Miyax” (“Julie” is her English name and “Miyax” is her Eskimo name).

Throughout the book, Miyax’s Eskimo traditions and survival skills are fascinating. This is my favorite passage:

She plucked the birds, laid them on the ground, and skillfully cut them open with her ulo. Lifting out the warm viscera, she tipped back her head and popped them into her mouth. They were delicious—the nuts and candy of the Arctic.

Revolting, yes, but a great way to impress readers with the differences between Miyax’s culture and ours!

The ending of the story is difficult because it’s so sad. I know that the author was trying to make an important point, and I understand that many of the things that happen are necessary symbolically. Still, I think the author took it a tad too far, which is why I give Julie a B+ rather than an A-. I would recommend this book for school-age children who are learning about native cultures, but personally, I find it hard to love a book that ends on such a tragic note.

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