Book Review

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

Title: Julie of the Wolves
Author: Jean Craighead George
Publication Info: HarperTrophy May 24, 2005
ISBN: 0060739444
Genre: Top 100 Banned Books

Submitted by Maya

(Warning: Some spoilerish comments included, because they refer to the story’s banned status. Hopefully this isn’t too big a violation of review procedure considering the book is over a quarter century old).

The story begins with a 13-year-old girl alone in the Alaskan wilderness, desperately yet systematically trying to establish communication with a wolf pack as her last means of avoiding starvation. As opening hooks go, the question of how someone so young got into such a predicament is powerful.  The author is in no hurry to answer, with the full background sprinkled a paragraph at a time throughout the story in between descriptions of current efforts to stay alive in a landscape moving from autumn to arctic winter.  Survival isn’t just a physical challenge, but a mental and emotional one as well; the heroine knows that singing to herself, inventing rhymes and dances, reliving happy memories, and imagining her future life are just as important as creating shelter and locating edible plants. And it is through these efforts to keep spirits up that the author weaves in a deeper theme: the duality that shapes all aspects of the heroine’s life. Is she Julie, the girl forced by government school regulations to move to a far-away town, who learns English, and discovers the wonders of modern life? Or is she Miyax, the girl raised by her father in traditional ways after her mother’s early death, learning about land, animals, and self-sufficience?

It is a difficult question, for herself as well as her people, and contributes to the crisis that sends her fleeing into the wilderness.  The ill-tempered great aunt who forced Julie’s father to allow her to move to town at age 9 isn’t motivated by Julie’s best interests, but by her own wish to have a live-in assistant as she ages. In a loving attempt to provide protection, Julie’s father makes an agreement with an old friend that Julie can come live with that family as the son’s bride when she is 13 in case anything ever happens to him and she finds her aunt unbearable. The father eventually fails to return after a hunting trip and is presumed dead.  The family shows up to claim her as their daughter-in-law, assuring Julie that Daniel (whose age is never revealed) will be ‘like a brother’. It becomes clear that the father-in-law is alcoholic, engages in bouts of wife battery, and that Daniel may be a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. Provoked by taunts that he ‘can’t mate her’, one day he angrily attempts to consummate the marriage. He fails, but threatens to try again the next day. Julie is so traumatized by the assault that she gathers clothes and tools and flees, thinking to walk across the tundra for a week to a ferry point and ultimately, live with her pen-pal in wondrous-sounding San Francisco. But because of the time of year, the natural guiding points she counted on don’t exist. She gets lost and is adopted into the wolf clan. So adept does she become at survival, and so convinced of the wisdom of her traditions vs. the evil of modern ways (symbolized by the hunters who shoot the alpha wolf from a bush plane purely for sport) that she ultimately has to make a choice: remain in the wild, relying only on animals for contact? Or live with people and find a way to blend the old ways with the new, hunting with town life, native language with English?

In terms of bannable issues, it is not difficult to understand that sexual assault of a minor, alcohol abuse, and domestic violence are sensitive issues in a book targeted at young readers.  I first read this book at about 9 or 10 having found it in the library at school, and as a sheltered child recall feeling horrified by the rape scene and the husband not only beating up his wife but doing so repeatedly. The feelings then were so intense that they came rushing back when I saw the title on a recommended reading list my son brought home from school. I was startled to see it recommended for Grades 3+ , apparently based solely on the complexity of the language.  Considering the content, as a concerned parent (and with the knowledge that some children will not have access to sensitive adults with whom to discuss troubling content, as was the case for me) I would have felt more comfortable with a target group at least equivalent in age to the heroine, rather than younger (i.e. Grade 6 or 7). That being said, the story is so rich in valuable talking points (critical need for conservation, cultural change, chemical dependence, family communication, sex according to expectations of peers vs. sex according to expectations of partner) that it would be an extreme case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater to bar this novel from young readers entirely.

In terms of writing, the author has taken an intriguing premise and skillfully kept up the internal and external tension, with challenges building right up until the final question. Although I can’t judge from a native person’s perspective, it seemed to me that she described culture and traditions with a great deal of respect despite inclusion of some harsh realities. As a trained naturalist, the author was also able to make the landscape and wildlife come alive – so much so that this strength borders on weakness.  Specifically, the text is so caught up in Julie’s developing skill at animal communication that the original catalyst (her damaged relationship with boys/men) is neglected. In the very last pages, there is a single sentence describing how Julie allows for the possibility that one day, there might be a boy like her who lives on the land and follows traditional ways.  As a child reader, I was comforted by this indication that not everyone would behave like Daniel.  As an adult, I am annoyed at this throw-away treatment of the book’s major conflict.  The impression given that letting enough time go by while refusing to think about an earlier assault will somehow automatically result in healing is simplistic, unbelievable, and the single outstanding flaw of the story. Long after this original publication the author wrote follow-up novels titled ‘Julie’ and ‘Julie’s Wolf Pack’ in which the topic may have been explored (I have not read them), but readers of this first novel deserved better.

Consequently, I would reduce the final grade from an A+ to an A-.

Comments are Closed

  1. canadacole says:

    Delurking just because this was my favourite book as a tween.  I read it again and again.  I think the copy from the school library spent more time with me than on the shelves.  It was just a beautiful book Oh, and for levity, I balanced it with re-reads of “My Side of the Mountain”.  I think every adolescent briefly entertains the idea of just running away from it all.

    Maya, did you ever read the sequel?  I have it but don’t remember anything about it.  I guess it’s time to dig them both out.

  2. shaina says:

    i liked the Julie books. i think i liked reading because of all the things that were banned…hehe…um…also wolves=cool.
    its funny, when i think about these books i get this weird feeling, like remembering the taste of a childhood food. it must be some fragment of what i felt when reading them…it’s kinda cool.

  3. Sandy D. says:

    Your analysis was fascinating! Coincidentally, I just did a review of “Julie of the Wolves” for The Newbery Project (here…not as favorable as the one you did, though.
    I would have given it a B-.

    None of the violence in this book particularly bothered me as a child, but I’m guessing I was around 12 when I read it. I just thought it was boooring, especially in comparison to “My Side of the Mountain”.

  4. Ellen says:

    I hate _Julie of the Wolves_.  I hate it so much that I want to post a counter-point.  Please note, I don’t hate it so much that I think it should be banned.  I just hate it as a person does who thinks a particular book is crappy.

    I didn’t read _Julie of the Wolves_ in elementary school – it wasn’t required, and while other people seemed to like it, I thought the premise sounded depressing.  Instead, I read _Julie of the Wolves_ when I was working on my Masters thesis on the topic of orphans in popular culture and public policy, when I was 25.  Consequently, I read it along with a mass of criticism.  This tends to inhibit anyone’s pleasure in any book, and it may be partly responsible for my feelings about this one, but does not explain the entire weight of my hatred.

    Jean Craighead George set out to write a book, not about Julie, but about some wolves.  She said as much.  Everything that happens to Julie is just a great big excuse to bring her into closer contact with some wolves.  The narrative arc in the story is not about the progression of character, it’s about getting Julie close to some wolves, and then resolving things somehow. 

    In the course of doing this, George commits a series of acts of authorial cruelty against Julie.  In the ordinary course of events, I don’t think authors should be held responsible for doing bad things to fictional characters.  Authors have stories to tell, and you can’t make a novel without breaking a few eggs. 

    What sets George apart for me is what she said about it afterwards. 

    _Julie of the Wolves_ faced challenges from its earliest days in print because of the sexual assault scene.  George defended this particular scene in a statement she wrote when she received the Newbery Award.  (I think it was her address to the ALA on that occasion – all the Newbery authors make such addresses, and they’re published afterwards.  I found Craighead’s statement in a collection of these addresses.  I’d have to go to the library to check exactly what it was.  I apologize for not having my citations handy.)

    In her statement, George defended the scene on the following grounds:

    1.  The scene can’t be considered a rape scene because the children were married.

    2.  For children like Julie, this kind of incident (sexual assault) is a catalyst to adulthood, much like discovering Santa isn’t real or your parents can’t do your homework is for “our children.” 

    It was the bit about “our children” that did me in.  In the choice of the word “our” George drew a sharp line between “us” – the people she assumed were in her audience – and “them” – the people like Julie, the indigenous people of North America, the survivors of childhood sexual assault, the people who presumably aren’t reading George’s work.  And then she compared sexual assault to finding out about Santa Claus. 

    At that point, I resolved to hate _Julie of the Wolves_ forever.  Jean Craighead George seems to have changed a bit between the writing of this book and the next in the series about Julie, but I have some pretty ambiguous feelings about her too.

  5. Sandy D. says:

    Ouch on the “our children”. Along those lines, this was a cool review of “Julie”: Martha Stackhouse review.

  6. Maya says:

    canadacole – After sending off the review to make deadline, I skimmed the last chapter of ‘Julie’s Wolfpack’ (the third in the trilogy)and it seems that somehow in the intervening years (Julie now appears to be an adult)she made peace enough with what happened to have a male partner in her life.

    sandy – i’m going to go and read your review now!

    ellen – very cool thesis topic, i wonder what your experimental hypothesis was and if it was confirmed or not – in terms of craighead george, i didn’t know most of this information (i knew about the wolves as one half of the inspiration for the novel, but i thought the other half of the inspiration was an occasion when she watched a young girl walking across the tundra on her own) and i have to say i’m not liking some of this new information.  kind of blows my ‘respect for native culture’ theory.

  7. Ellen says:

    Maya, I was working towards a degree in history, so I didn’t have an experimental hypothesis so much.  The basic idea was that popular depictions of orphans are negative echoes of popular conceptions of family – whatever the orphan is lacking is what family is supposed to do – and that public policy in the US in the 20th century reflected similar ideas about family. 

    I knew about the girl walking into the tundra too.  From what I can tell, Craighead George thought “I wonder what she’s doing?” and then “I bet I can hook her up with some wolves!”  and from thence to Julie.  I’m sure there was a longer process.  I’m probably selling Jean short. 

    Julie is one of a number of (abandoned, traumatized, non-white) female characters in celebrated children’s books who function more as a window into the scene than as a fully realized character.  They aren’t given feelings (or are given very few feelings), just legs to move the reader around and eyes for the reader to look through.

  8. mokoshna says:

    I read that book when I was a little girl, in french, and I still remember the plot (and the rape scene) years after. It was a pleasant surprise to see it reviewed here (I usually lurk from time to time and I adore this place), because I wanted to re-read it and I totally forgot its name…

    After reading the comments, I was displeased to know the author’s statements for this book, but it didn’t bother me so much because, frankly, I was all there for the wolves when I was little. Maybe it will when I’ll read it again, I don’t know.

    (Please excuse me for my crappy english – the main reason why I don’t usually comment here.)

  9. Sandy D. says:

    Julie is one of a number of (abandoned, traumatized, non-white) female characters in celebrated children’s books who function more as a window into the scene than as a fully realized character.  They aren’t given feelings (or are given very few feelings), just legs to move the reader around and eyes for the reader to look through.

    Oh, I wish I’d had this sentence handy when I did a review of “Island of the Blue Dolphins”. This describes it to a T.

    It seems that it is also often Native American orphans who get this treatment in regards to nature, too.

  10. Just last week we did an audio interview with the author of Julie of the Wolves.
    She is still a very prolific writer and I think your readers will enjoy the interview.  It is at

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