Review of “Julie of the Wolves”

Shared from my Goodreads review.

Because I have strong childhood ties with this book –huge amounts of nostalgia — and I’m preparing to part with it after all of these years, I have a lot to say about it. However, I will get the basics out of the way first.

This is a well-written book, and it tells a good story from an educational stand-point. It seeks to educate on two fronts: the lives of the indigenous people of Alaska both in a traditional sense and in the sense of those traditions clashing and being suppressed by the spread of western civilization. On the other front, it seeks to educate its readers on the natural world of the Alaskan tundra and the Arctic Circle. We see not only wolves in this book, but caribou, wolverines, lemmings, weasels, a wide variety of birds, and more. In this way it is a wonderful book, however it is definitely informed by out-of-date research. Biologists will tell you, for example, that lemmings are not actually suicidal but that this is a sort of biological urban myth, and that wolf packs are not structured around a hierarchy (alpha, beta, omega, etc.) so much as they are structured around family. Rather than alpha males and females, we see in the wild breeding pairs as the “leaders” of a pack that is predominantly made up of family members. The “alphas” and subordinates of popular (but incorrect) thought was a hierarchical structure observed in wolves kept in captivity, where they were thrown in with unrelated and often entirely strange wolves, an unnatural situation which bred stress and aggression, leading to the rigid and often violent hierarchies that people so often speak of. While this book doesn’t rely on this outdated idea overmuch, it definitely is present in the treatment of the wolf called Jello and some of the interactions between the leader wolves and the rest of the pack (which at least is seemingly made up of family members, at least for the most part). Regardless of this, however, the story remains engaging and the writing evocative.

These are the reasons that I want to pass this book on to a student who reminds me a lot of myself as a child. These were among the first chapter books I read in elementary school, and in a lot of ways I can see how a story like this would attract me, but I can also see how a story like this helped to shape me. In this way, I both look forward to giving the books over to this student and the idea of doing so makes me feel sad.

Clearly I was drawn to this story because of my strong environmentalist streak as a child. I loved nature and I held a special reverence for wolves. I would almost say I was “wolf spirited” as a child, preferring to spend my summers outside with my mom’s pack of Australian shepherds and imaging not only that they were wolves but that we made up a pack. I would howl and some of them would howl along with me and our neighbors thought I was a real weirdo. I spent the majority of my childhood outside with nature, not just with the dogs but with the trees, with the grass, with the brush, with the birds — trying to observe the wild wherever I could on our farm. I loved it when my father took my camping or allowed me to tag along on his hunts with his friends. I may not have enjoyed fishing as much (I was a child and found it quite boring) but I loved being out in the wilderness and I loved it when my father taught me how to find bait among the rocks lining the lake or the river, little larval insects he called “helgie bugs,” which he taught me how to put on the hook. Part of the process, he always told me, was that we had to pray to the helgie bug, to thank it for its sacrifice so we could eat that night.

I wanted nothing more than to be close to nature, as one with nature as I could be. So of course a story like this — a coming of age story about a young girl fleeing the cruelty of humans to become one with the harsh and beautiful wilderness — drew me and inspired me. In many ways, I think stories like this helped to shape me.

A story like this, which reflects many Alaskan Native traditions (however accurately, I cannot be sure) certainly helped to reinforce the kind of things my father taught me while hunting, fishing, and camping. Paying due respect and reverence to the natural world that sustains us was primary among these lessons as I internalized them, and helped to shape me as an environmentalist (if, in my adult life, not a terrible active one) and as a pagan whose only real church is the mountainous wilderness. In this way, I am still deeply attached to this book, despite growing up to be able to identify out-dated biological theories and research and perhaps even some problematic elements with regards to the portrayal of indigenous people.

Honestly I’m not terribly certain that “Julie of the Wolves” does portray indigenous peoples in a problematic light. I don’t want to say that, really, because I feel like Jean Craighead George doesn’t exactly fall prey to the “noble savage” trope as, despite definitely romanticizing Miyax’s closeness with nature and ability to communicate with nature, she also highlights elements of traditional cultures which may not have been exactly great (i.e. Miyax’s marriage to Daniel at the age of thirteen, which culminates with an attempted rape. I try very hard to not judge cultural practices that are different from what I’m used to so long as no one is getting hurt, but child marriages almost inevitably involve some degree of harm if not outright abuse so I’m fairly strongly on the side of “child marriage is bad”). George even touches on the ways in which the collision with the western world has harmed indigenous cultures, such as the effects of alcoholism in modern tribes (arguably linked with the generational trauma of colonialism and genocide), the seeming allusion of Miyax’s being sent to school and the forcible removal of indigenous children from their families, to even the loss of the very values which modern westerners so romanticize (i.e. closeness to and reverence for nature giving way to hunting for sport).

For these reasons it’s hard for me to say that George’s portrayal of indigenous culture is necessarily problematic. I can’t argue either that she necessarily addresses problematic tropes like the “noble savage” or the “drunk indian,” let alone grapples with them, but I will say that I think that she portrays indigenous cultures in a way which is simple enough for a young audience to digest without being overly simplistic; in a way which is complex without going over the head of the intended audience. I think she does strike a balance with these things, and in this way it seems to me that she probably dodges the biggest of the problematic bullets, though I can certainly see how the argument can be made that there are still problematic elements and I’m not going to argue that.

Primarily I don’t want to argue that because, in hindsight, I think the way Baby Tahni internalized George’s portrayal of indigenous people was problematic. As a child I definitely came away from this book with an overly romantic view of indigenous people (I remember specifically fantasizing about someday marrying a native man so I could be a part of the culture that I perceived as being so much more enlightened than western civilization. Talk about fetishization) and whether or not George played into the “noble savage” trope, I definitely bought into it as child — hardcore — and some of that definitely came from my reading of the book. Is that George’s fault? No, I don’t think it is. I think as a child, when presented with a story that included complexities, I effectively skimmed over the parts that were unpleasant and internalized the parts that I identified with and thus idealized to the greatest extent. In this way, the problematic nature of the story lies with my reading of it and the way in which I internalized it, not necessarily in the way George packaged it.

I’m still unpacking a lot of that fetishization and romanticization today, but that’s not George’s fault. On the other hand, I still do carry a great reverence for nature and I try to minimize my negative impact on the environment I love so much (I won’t reproduce, I am returning to a vegetarian diet with exceptions for sustainably harvested and cruelty-free meat, I am minimizing my dairy intake for the same reason, I lead community clean-ups with the local kids and try to teach them about sustainability, and I am currently angling for a job in sustainability education, among basic practices like limiting driving, limiting energy consumption, composting and recycling) and at the age of thirteen I left Christianity (which I found to be terribly stifling and downright unhealthy) and turned to paganism, which holds as a core value an innate respect and reverence for nature. As I’ve grown into my spiritual path, this has held as a core tenant of my practice and beliefs. Did George instill these things in me? No. My father and my mother, along with my long hours playing, growing, and learning in nature did. But stories like these certainly reinforced these things in me, helped to solidify them by seeing them portrayed in the literature I consumed.

This was the first in a long line of wolf books I devoured as a child, each one of them helping to reinforce in me that reverence for nature and respect for the animals of the wilderness. In that way I place a huge amount of value on these books, and I want to be able to pass these things on. It’ll feel sad, to give these books away — sad in the same way it is sad to recognize that the farm I grew up on is no longer in the family, but also sad in the way that growing up is just kind of sad. And yes, at the age of twenty-eight, I find that I’m still growing up from time to time. It’s good to be reminded of the ways in which I’m still growing, and revisiting these childhood books of mine is a wonderful way of being reminded.

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