Thursday, October 13, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George

Wow. This book surprised me. I expected to enjoy it. I expected that the research about the natural world would be very good, and the research about Inupiaq culture would be much less good. As it turns out...

1. I did not enjoy it. It was maybe not as much of a slog as The Trumpeter of Krakow, but it was really boring. The pacing was off, and I don't think the structure does it any favors. It picks up a little during the second part, where we get Miyax/Julie's backstory, and it would have been helpful to have that connection to the character before we sit and stare at wolves with her for fifty pages. I think George meant to drop us RIGHT INTO THE MIDDLE OF THE ACTION, but when the action involves lying on an ice hill for hours at a time, that plan backfires. At least for this reader.

And then there's the ending. What the serious hell. In the space of three pages, Miyax decides to live with her father, learns that her father is one of the people shooting the wolves and changes her mind, and changes her mind again because her bird dies and that symbolizes the end of the "Eskimo" way of life.

Finally, there's the infamous attempted rape scene, which is not at all graphic, but it's also out of place and not essential to the narrative.

2. Everything she writes about wolf communication and culture seems plausible, but I'm no expert, and given that she gets many other things wrong about life in the Arctic, I'm inclined to view the whole thing with suspicion.

3. Well, I knew going in that the representation of "Eskimo" culture was going to be somewhere between misleading and cringe-inducing. I had a feeling I would find something about Julie of the Wolves on American Indians in Children's Literature, and I was not wrong.

Here's what puzzles me though: the Wikipedia article about the book claims that George did not feel comfortable writing sequels because she "did not know enough about the Eskimo culture." (There is a source listed for this quote, but the link is broken.) If that was the case... why did she write Julie of the Wolves in the first place?

I wonder if George's understanding of Inupiaq culture grew over time (her last book, Ice Whale, takes place in the same setting, but I don't see any reviews by Debbie Reese or other native scholars). If so, why didn't she ever put out a revised edition of Julie of the Wolves?  

4 and 5. Just a couple of infuriating extra tidbits:

  • I'm certain that this book is still blithely taught in schools, and it's not even in the top ten worst offenders on that count. I'm pretty sure my daughter had to read The Courage of Sarah Noble a couple of years ago. 
  • They were making a movie of Julie of the Wolves, and though they initially wanted to cast an Inuk or Inupiat actress, Young changed his mind because he "didn't find the person that we felt was going to breathe the right kind of feeling into the story." RAGE. LASERS OF RAGE FROM MY EYEBALLS. That article is from 2008, though, so maybe they saw reason and scrapped the whole thing. 

Going back to the "problematic old Newbery books being taught in schools" thing though... this is the problem with an award like this for children's literature. Teachers seem to think that a Newbery book's "most distinguished" status will last forever, and that the gold sticker is a carte blanche to teach it uncritically. Maybe Newbery winners should come with a caveat, or an expiration date... but that's probably the subject of a whole 'nother post.

1 comment:

  1. Andy Young still claims to be working on the film on his LinkedIn page, but his film company doesn't even list it among their "in development" projects, and the project doesn't have an IMDb page that would show it was actively in development. Robert Young is 91 now, and hasn't worked on anything since 2011. If the film adaptation exists in any sense right now, it's only in Andy Young's mind. With, you know, a white actress >.>