Julie of the Wolves
by Jean Craighead George; ill. John Schoenherr
Harper & Row, 1972
Next week is Banned Books Week, when libraries, bookstores, and schools set up displays and hold events to call attention to books that have been censored in some way. Typically, these are books that local authorities have removed from school or library shelves in response to objections from the public–just about the only way a book can be officially censored in the U.S.
Perhaps not surprisingly, most of these books are either books that were written for children or books that people don’t want children to read. And, ironically, many of them are also classics of the American literary canon: books like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
As I’ve written before, I’ve read a lot of these books myself–and I imagine my daughter will read many of them, too. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of them are the kind of book I review on this blog. Inspiring books, after all, are often inspiring precisely because they do what censors decry: challenge our beliefs and boundaries, push us to unpack (and sometimes even discard) long-held assumptions and opinions, or confront us with the uglinesses of real life.
All these qualities are at play in Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves, which has won both the ALA’s Newbery Medal and a spot on the organization’s list of frequently censored books.
Set in mid-20th-century Alaska, the book follows 13-year-old Miyax Julie Kapugen as she treks alone across the tundra to escape an arranged marriage. To avoid starvation, she befriends a wolf pack by drawing on skills and wisdom learned from her father, one of her people’s greatest hunters. Wolves and girl travel together to the coast, where Miyax finally must choose between making her dreamed-of escape to San Francisco, rejoining her people in a modernized village, or remaining on the tundra to live a traditional life.
The chronological story of Miyax’s journey fills the first and last thirds of the book; the middle third, an extended flashback, tells the story of her earlier childhood. Miyax happily spent most of this period living with her late father at his hunting camp, absorbing her father’s wisdom and her people’s traditional lifeways. Forced to move to her aunt’s village home, she “escaped” via an arranged marriage that ended in attempted rape (the brief and somewhat oblique, but harsh, rape scene is typically the reason the book is censored).
Throughout the book, Miyax struggles to define her own identity. She’s a child forced to live like an adult, an Eskimo clinging to traditional ways in the face of encroaching modernization. Fighting for her own physical survival, she must fight for emotional and cultural survival as well.
George’s frank, almost journalistic portrayal of these battles is eye-opening. Even as an adult, I can’t imagine facing some of the hardships Miyax so ably confronts.
She builds her own shelter (repeatedly), makes her own tools and sled, kills and prepares her own food. And she keeps herself sane through the endless Arctic nights. When others try to reshape her identity from the outside, to trap her in circumstances with no apparent escape, she finds a way to preserve who she is and win freedom.
First and foremost, her story inspires real confidence in the ability of women and girls to thrive under the most difficult circumstances. It’s an important confidence to have, in a world where women and girls still bear the brunt of extreme poverty, lack of education, and poor medical care.
Julie of the Wolves also introduces readers to something unfamiliar, to a near-vanished way of life that is deeply foreign to most Americans. But the book doesn’t just offer a pat lesson in what-used-to-be or how-others-live; it asks uncomfortable questions about the true worth of modernization, the relationship between people and nature, and the ways we perceive other people.
In other words, it’s just what an inspiring book should be.