Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick reads Jean Craighead George's 'Julie Of The Wolves,' which won a Newberry Medal in 1973.
I made an embarrassing discovery upon settling in for this week's reread: I had never, in fact, read Julie of the Wolves. (I'm not a complete fantasist—I do own a battered copy on which I or, far more likely, somebody else, drew large, looping lines with a pen.) I'm not totally surprised I thought I had, though. There's the whole "Noun of the Noun" issue (Summer of the Swans, Anne of Green Gables, Summer of My German Soldier) — but also just the preponderance of child-alone-with-animal(s) cover treatments (Sounder, A Day No Pigs Would Die, Zia, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Phantom Tollbooth, even Clan of the Cave Bear, which counts since I READ it as a child). Obviously, if I girl is striding around the landscape wearing Mukluks surrounded by creatures with fur that drool, I must have been in on it.
Miyax, "American" name Julie, is a young Eskimo girl who, after the death of her mother, was raised by her father, Kapugen, out in the wild, catching seals etc., until her father is drafted and aunt hauls her back to town to go to one of the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. As the author tells us, even Miyax's body is part of the landscape, as she's a "classic Eskimo beauty, small of bone and delicately wired with strong muscles....Unlike the long-limbed, long-bodied animals of the south that are cooled by dispensing heat on extended surfaces, all things in the Arctic tend toward compactness, to conserve heat."
As the book opens, 13-year-old Miyax has run away (seven sleeps, so far) from her husband Daniel, to whom she was affianced at the behest of her aunt. Her only hope for survival out on the tundra is a pack of wolves whom she may partake of kills with, if she can earn the leader, Amaroq's, trust.
Here she was, watching wolves—she, Miyax, daughter of Kapugen, adopted child of Martha, citizen of the United States, pupil at the Bureau of Indian Affairs School in Barrow, Alaska, and thirteen-year-old wife of the boy Daniel, watching wolves. She shivered at the thought of Daniel, for it was he who had driven her to this fate.
The fate in question has, for the first third of the book, quite a lot to do with becoming part of the pack, what various members of the pack do, and accumulating meat—for reasons I will get to in a second. And I will ascribe either to the fact that adults can't absorb tundra-porn like children or just that I am a bad person that I skipped mightily over these sections, just like I did the stuff about the healing properties of various flora in The Clan of the Cave Bear. I apologize, plotfinder winner! Here's an example just for the meat-lovers amongst us:
When in sight of her house she took a shortcut and came upon a pile of caribou droppings—fuel for her fire! Gleefully, she stuffed her pockets, tied a marker at the site for later use, and skipped home dreaming of owlet stew.
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. She had forgotten how good they tasted. They were rich in vitamins and minerals and her starving body welcomed them.
Treats over, she sliced her birds into delicate strips and simmered them slowly and not too long.
"Chicken of the North," Miyax gave a toast to the birds. Then she drank the rich juices and popped the tender meat in her mouth.
It was time to carve and eat! She cut open the belly and lifted out the warm liver, the "candy" of her people. With a deft twist of the ulo, she cut off a slice and savored each bite of this, the most nourishing part of the animal. So rich is the liver that most of it is presented to the women and girls, an ancient custom with wisdom at its core—since women give birth to babies, they need the iron and blood of the liver.
Candy, candy! (News for you ladies under 30—the closer you get to menopause, the more you DO want to take hunks of bloody liver and drop them, dripping, in your mouth.) But the novel picks up as we realize where Julie/Miyax is actually headed — to San Francisco, to meet with her pen pal, the white girl Amy Pollack, whose father works for the Bureau helping the Alaskans with the alcoholism that has followed the white people:
The many years in the seal camp alone with Kapugen had been dear and wonderful, but she realized now that she had lived a strange life. The girls her age could speak and write English and they knew the names of Presidents, astronauts, and radio and movie personalities, who lived below the top of the world. ... the wonders of Mekoryuk dimmed as weekly letters from Amy arrived. Julie learned about television, sports cars, blue jeans, bikinis, hero sandwiches, and wall-to-wall carpeting in the high school Amy would soon be attending. Mekoryuk had no high school. The Eskimo children of the more prosperous families were sent to the mainland for further schooling, something with Aunt Martha could not afford.
But after Miyax marries Daniel, he tries to rape her — and that's how she winds up with the wolves, back on the tundra, to the world of her early childhood with Kapugen, collecting caribou meat to have enough nourishment to make the long journey to her friend. But her journey is interrupted when Amaroq is killed by hunters who descend in a plane and shoot the entire pack. Riddled with grief, Miyax finds out that Kapugen, whom she had believed dead, is in fact alive, and has brought a struggling town back to self-sufficiency by teaching them to hunt, as he taught Miyax. She journeys first to the nearby town, knowing if she can just return to him, she won't need to go to Amy:
The big room was warm and smelled of skins and fat. Harpoons hung on the wall, and under the window was a large couch of furs. The kayak hung from the ceiling, and a little stove glowed in the center of the room. Kapugen's house in Kangik looked just like Kapugen's house in seal camp. She was home!
Not so fast. Kapugen's wife comes into the room, and Miyax realizes she's missed half of what she needs to see:
Miyax saw that her face was pale and her hair was reddish gold. A chill spread over her. What had Kapugen done? What had happened to him that he would marry a gussak? What was his new life?
Kapugen and his woman talked—she loudly, he quietly. Miyax's eyes when around the room again. This time she saw not just the furs and the kayak, but electric lamps, a radio-phonograph, cotton curtains and, through the door to the annex, the edge of an electric stove, a coffee pot, and china dishes.
Then she saw a helmet and goggles on a chair. Miyax stared at them until Kapugen noticed her.
"Aw, that," he said. "I now own an airplane, Miyax. It's the only way to hunt today."
...Miyax heard no more. It could not be, it could not be. She would not let it be...she opened the door and closed it behind her. Kapugen, after all, was dead to her.
I was recently discussing with a few friends why, in the books of earlier eras, all the children are orphans or somehow bereft of parental influence. There is the obvious explanation that this allows the child to interact with the world a bit more fully, but I think there's another reason. The child is not only interacting with the world, but serving as a symbolic bridge between cultures. Just as The Secret Garden's Mary is able to restore a corrupt household riddled with the spoils of colonialism to a stunning example of a lush England which nurtures itself from within, so Miyax is the bridge from the Eskimo ways to the new Alaska, a hybrid of native and white culture in which Kapugen still kayaks, but has a white wife and a plastic, not sealskin, coat.
Sadly for Miyax, her dream to "live with the rhythm of the beasts and the land" is no longer supportable. Not only are the "seals scarce and the whales almost gone," Kapugen himself has gone from an Alaskan hunter to a western one, using a plane to shoot animals that he doesn't even bother to collect. Perhaps he has killed Amaroq, the last hunter of the tundra, the one who has sustained his daughter in her time of need. As she tells us, that kill has turned Miyax's dream of flying to San Francisco into a "dream of fire and blood and death." The only thing left for her, and for Alaskan culture, is a bastardized version of their old way of life. Even her name is gone. As George writes, it's not Miyax who points her boots back towards Kapugen. It's Julie.
Holy hell, you ladies NEVER cease to amaze me. So, the answer to last week's sister/greasepaint/pretty mystery was INDEED similar to "The....I want to say The Giver but it's not" in that it was The Leaving, by Budge Wilson. Winner is Lauren L., avowed lurker, by email. Lauren, you are clearly hiding your light under a bushel with this whole "lurking" action. You are, as Trump says, a winner. Or maybe that was Alec Baldwin in Glengary Glen Ross. Whatever, you have the right to tell me to do a column and no one can ever take that away from you. Write me at email@example.com to claim your booty, or even put it in the damn COMMENTS! It will be good for your constitution.
This week's Plotfinder actually comes from a friend who is feeling poorly, and since her own stomach is rebelling I'd like to solve this particular related narrative. I'm recreating the oral request from memory here:
"Okay, so there's this girl in the 20s, and she's all out on the town, working, new job, having fun. Has a great boyfriend. He's gotta go off to the war. [So a little before the 20s. —Lizzie] She's loving her job, and somehow gets hooked up with the suffragette movement, Saratoga, the whole nine. She's marching. She's into it. THEN SHE LITERALLY GETS TAKEN TO JAIL, AND FORCE-FED. FORCE FED!!!!!!!! Then her boyfriend comes back. He's still great. And he's all about, when is the marriage happening, and she's actually like, you are terrific. But I choose me."
Ladies? Send your guesses and secure knowledge to firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave the answer in the comments. First correct wins the chance to order me around.
I've got one more bonus Plotfinder, again from yours truly. This is an odd duck, since I'm fairly sure I'm remembering the title, A Long Day in Winter, correctly. It's about a young black boy over the course of one day when his parents, who are sharecroppers on a sugarcane plantation, separate. Early in the morning, his mother gets up with him to pee, then he asks for water, and she says, "Let it out and put it all in again, huh?" She gives him a bit of sugarcane when she's working in the fields, and his hands are cold. The mother and father rejoin again at the end, and the father's hands are strong and calloused from working in the fields. It probably took place in the 30s or 40s, and the cover is purplish with the boy and mother on it. ETC. Doesn't exist, as far as Google and Amazon are concerned. POSSIBLY by someone with first name of Brenda?
Have at it, in comments or to email@example.com.
You guys keep asking me to list next week's books! Hello! I DO THAT now. I know I am yelling at the wrong people if you have made it down here, but HELLO.
Next week is:
Happy Endings Are All Alike
Stranger With My Face!
If anyone has the "right" cover for Stranger With My Face, I'd appreciate a scan. it's quite rare—Lia is tall and semi-Native American looking, long dark hair, and actually looking at herself (but not herself!!!) in the mirror. My copy lost the cover a long time ago, which is of course psychologically devastating and something I think about probably once a day. Provider wins a mystery vintage text from my enormous, teetering collection.
Send pics, demands, guesses, and anything else you think I'd like to know to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will take your emails and pull them from my inbox's abdominal cavity, saving the warm, rich liver for myself, because women get to keep the nutrient-rich liver because we have the babies; obviously no one cares if WE get effing nutrients.
Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag]
Earlier: Deenie: Brace Yourself
•A Wrinkle In Time: Quit Tesseracting Up
•Love Is One Of The Choices: No, Not That 'Sex And The City'
•The Girl With The Silver Eyes: Little Pitchers Have Big Pharma
•Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself: Springtime For Hitler, Part II
•Summer Of My German Soldier: Springtime For Hitler, Part I
•From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: City Of Angels
•A Gift Of Magic: Totally Psyched
•Are You There Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan
•The Secret Garden: Still No Idea What A Missel Thrush Is
•To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie: No Telephone To Child Services
•The Westing Game: Partners In Crime
• The Moon By Night: Travels With Vicky
•My Sweet Audrina: The Book Of Sister And Forgetting
•The Long Secret: CSI: Puberty
•The Cat Ate My Gymsuit: A Pocket Full Of Orange Pits
•The Witch Of Blackbird Pond: Colonies, Slit Sleeves And Stocks, Oh My!
•Are You In The House Alone? One Out Of Four, Maybe More
•Jacob Have I Loved: Oh, Who Am I Kidding, I Reread This Book Once A Week
• Then Again, Maybe I Won't: Close Your Eyes, And Think Of Jersey City
•My Darling, My Hamburger: I Will Gladly Pay You Tomorrow For A D&C Today
•All-Of-A-Kind Family: Where I Would Put Something Yiddish If I Thought You Goyishe Farshtinkiners Would Farshteyn
•Island Of The Blue Dolphins: I'm A Cormorant And I Don't Care
•Little House In The Big Woods: I Play With A Pig Bladder Like It's A Balloon
•The Grounding Of Group Six: Have Fun At School, Kids, And Don't Forget To Die