I have to admit, I have never been one to fantasize about living along in the woods. As a child I’d occasionally climb a tree and perch for a few hours, but ultimately I knew I’d never hack it, nor would I want to. Mosquitoes seem preternaturally attracted to me, I have bad circulation that makes my fingers and toes go cold easily, and I generally enjoy the company of people. Even though I’m usually successful at making fires, no, there’s no way I’d want that.
Okay, that’s not really the point of Julie of the Wolves, but for most of the book, it seems to be that kind of story where yes, a child has gone through hardship that forces them into living by themselves in nature, but they really seem like they’re having fun with it. It’s the 1970s and Julie (aka Miyax, but the title calls her Julie so I’ll just go with that) has run away from home, trying to make her way to Barrow where she can catch a plane to San Francisco to meet, and presumably move in with, her pen pal. We open on her lost among a pack of wolves. She ran away just as winter was beginning, and quickly realized she did not have enough food or supplies to make it to Barrow before winter set in. I realize she is 13 and perhaps did not think this plan through well enough, but you’d think that a life in Alaska would at least pound in the message that WINTER IS BAD and you should do all you can to avoid being alone in it.
Julie, as the title suggests, is essentially adopted by a tribe of wolves after she learns to read their body language and communicate with them. The entire first chapter is her learning to speak to them, playing with wolf puppies, and having them bring food to her. It’s everything you want out of a YA book about a child living with animals, and an easy fantasy to fall into. Just think, instead of getting yelled at about your Algebra homework you could be rolling around on your belly and snuggling with baby wolves! Sure, she’s nearly starving to death and when winter comes the wolves abandon her and she’s left to eat boiled moss, but baby wolves!!!!
Then, we get to the flashback chapter. Julie’s mom died when she was very young, so she goes to live with her father, Kapugen, in a more traditional Eskimo lifestyle. Her Aunt Martha thinks he’s crazy for that, and when he goes out to fish one day and never returns, Julie is sent back to live with her Aunt Martha, who in general just seems to suck. Looking for a way out, she remembers her dad telling her when she turned 13 she could marry her godfather’s son, Daniel, and just chill with her godfather’s family for a while and not have to really be married.
And then her husband rapes her? I think. I’m not sure. He’s described as a “dumb” boy and his friends make fun of him for not having consummated the marriage, so he attacks Julie and the room goes fuzzy for her and Daniel jerks around and then stops. It’s awful, and comes as a total shock about 40 pages after baby wolves.
The rest of the book doesn’t get much better. The incident with Daniel is what makes her run away, and she is alone in the tundra when the wolves come back. Except then some people come up and shoot one of them from a plane. I cannot remember specifically which wolf, but it was one of the important ones, and it died. So then Julie is mourning this and she comes across some other people, who she gets to talk to, and who eventually figure out that her father is actually alive and well and living with Barrow. So she goes to meet her father, and discovers that he has married a white woman, set up his house with electricity, and hunts from a plane. Is there anything worse that can happen to her? I mean she has just been through some of the most harrowing experiences anyone could face and now she has to find out her dad is a fucking sellout? Oh wait, then her pet bird dies. Did I tell you she had a pet bird? It was her only other company and she goes to run away from her father and about five feet outside his house her bird dies, so she resigns to go live with him and learn English.
Look, I know that kids can handle some rough shit in books. But you know what? I can’t. I am a total baby when it comes to depressing plots. I Google endings like nobody’s business, and I still haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave because I know I just won’t be able to handle it. I’m the woman who asks her husband if he’d ever plot to murder me after every episode of Law & Order. I think this stuff is real. And when you present to me a 170 page cute little book about a young girl living with a pack of fluffy dogs I am going to expect some gentleness in the storytelling!!!
There’s maybe a reason I haven’t read other books like this, like Hatchet or Lord of the Flies. The only real familiarity I have with the genre is the Disney version of The Jungle Book, which makes the whole living among nature thing seem far more enjoyable. Julie of the Wolves does a good job of showing what it might be like for a savvy girl who actually knows how to do things like hunt and build shelter. It turns out all I want is to play with puppies.