I read Julie of the Wolves to my eight year old daughter. She loves animals so it was not difficult for her to settle into a story of a young girl Julie (or Miyax her Eskimo name), who learns through necessity the language of the wolves. Towards the end of the book, however, I noticed my daughter struggle to understand why Julie was so conflicted. Does she remain on the periphery of society, running with the wolves or does she re-enter the land of human relationships? For my eight year old, there was little doubt that life with a Wolfpack would be infinitely more gratifying. I wished too that Julie could run with the wolves. But this is not exactly a fantasy book where it is possible to go back in time or ignore the harsh realities of the Eskimo people. Julie, unfortunately, learns keeping the old ways, in a literal sense, is not an option.
We begin on the North Slope of Alaska. Julie is lost and starving. Her only hope is to somehow communicate her need for help to the Alpha wolf who she calls, Amaroq. He is sheltered close by with his pack and his new pups. She has brought a few basic tools with her, but she never anticipated getting lost in the tundra so now she must draw on all her father, Kapugen, taught her to survive. Interestingly, she names the wolves first, as if, she cannot communicate with them from her perspective without focusing on a name that carves out some special characteristic of each particular wolf.
Because her life depends on it, Julie spends hours studying the behavior of the wolves. They are her only means of survival. She has very little food, and needs to convince them to share their food with her. She begins to understand how they relate to one another, and what their body language means. Soon she begins to see the wolves differently:
“Any fear Miyax had of the wolves was dispelled by their affection for each other. They were friendly animals and so devoted to Amaroq that she needed only to be accepted by him to be accepted by all. (20)”
She has her father, Kapugen, to thank for this special gift of paying attention and striving to understand the other:
“He told her the birds and animals all had languages and if you listened and watched them you could learn about their enemies, where their food lay and when big storms were coming” (79).
When Julie was young, after her mother died, Kapugen left his village with his daughter and they lived for, what seems to be an enchanted time, at seal camp. It is here where Julie becomes truly connected to the life of an Eskimo. It is here where she rejects her name Julie for her Eskimo name, Miyax. She experiences life at seal camp, not as difficult and backward, but rather as deeply ritualistic and moving.
At the celebration of the Bladder Feast, for instance:
“A shaman, an old priestess whom everyone called ‘the bent woman,’ danced. Her face was streaked with black soot. When she finally bowed, a fiery spirit came out of the dark wearing a huge mask that jingled and terrified Miyax. Once, in sheer bravery, she peeked up under a mask and saw that the dancer was not a spirit at all but Naka, Kapugen’s serious partner. She whispered his name and he laughed, took off his mask, and sat down beside Kapugen. They talked and the old men joined them. Later that day Kapugen blew up seal bladders and he and the old men carried them out on the ice. There they dropped them into the sea, while Miyax watched and listened to their songs. When she came back to camp the bent woman told her that the men had returned the bladders to the seals. (77)”
What seems like a silly ritual, where even a little girl spies the “human” behind the mask, has an everlasting affect on Miyax as she is forced to live alone in the tundra. She must draw on all her life experience, and beyond, to tap into her instinct and her skill. The experience at seal camp has laid the foundation for Miyax to open up to the sacredness of all life. The rituals were about relationship and honoring the source of your life. The killing of the seals was done out of necessity, and the seal itself needed to be understood and approached with gratitude.
Through experience and reflection Miyax begins to realize that she does not need much if she works in conjunction with her environment instead of fighting against it:
“As she carefully searched the ground she began to think about seal camp. The old Eskimos were scientists too. By using the plants, animals, and temperature, they had changed the harsh Arctic into a home, a feat as incredible as sending rockets to the moon. She smiled. The people at seal camp had not been as outdated and old-fashioned as she had been led to believe. No, on the contrary, they had been wise. They had adjusted to nature instead of to man-made gadgets” (121).
She can live well with just her needles, ulo (man’s knife), and boots. She is at peace.
“She was not afraid. Singing her Amaroq song, she gathered grass and rolled it into cylinders. With deft strokes she chopped a hole in the icebound lake, soaked the grass sticks, and laid them out in the air to freeze. Hours later they had snapped and crackled into ice poles. She cut the drag in two pieces and, pushing the poles under one piece, she erected a tent” (123).
Miyax is going to live happily ever after with a few basic tools and close to a wolf pack? This is where my daughter would have ended it. No need to think about anything that might be painful. But, even before reality hits hard, we see as she is searching for a proper place to call home that cracks are appearing, and we will soon have to face life with all its goodness and ugliness.
“With every mile she traveled now, the oil drums became more and more numerous and the tracks of the wolverine more and more scarce. Like a wolf, the wolverine is an animal of the wilderness, and when Miyax saw no more tracks she knew she was approaching man” (152).
After the oil drums the ground under her feet continues to shift. Her Wolfpack is being hunted from hunters who practice sharp-shooting more than hunting as they fly from up above fatiguing the wolves with their menacing aircraft, and from a comfortable distance shoot them dead, and then fly home leaving the wolf. No trophy; just fun killing without a reason. She cannot keep her Wolfpack safe from man. But, she does repay the wolves by saving Amaroq’s son, Kapu, and eventual leader of the pack.
Her world splits wide open when she discovers that her father, Kapugen, who she thought to be dead, is alive.
She is shaken by the news, but rejoices in hearing that Kapugen is somewhat of a legend in his village because he brought the Eskimo ways to the people. Expecting to she her Eskimo father, and dreaming of him as the ideal with whom she will live happily ever after, she makes it out of the tundra only to be disappointed by seeing her father has been co-opted by modern society. He is married to a blonde, he has a house full of gadgets, and he actually assists hunters by flying them in his bi-plane to shoot wolves from the air. It is all too distressing.
She must make a decision. Another decision. For what led her astray in the first place was the decision to leave and go to San Francisco — to live in a world of luxury and gadgets. She gets lost and as a consequence wakes up to who she is and how she fits into this world. Now she must figure it out all over again — how does she fit into the world? Does she go back to the tundra and live in solitude? Does she live in the village and compromise? Does she go to San Francisco and develop some Eskimo niche?
Julie of the Wolves is as pertinent today as it was in the seventies when it was written. We are constantly struggling to figure out where we fit in this world, and how much of the world do we allow to change and how much of it do we fight to preserve. I believe, as Joseph Campbell, and C.J. Jung have said, we need a myth to live by. As Julie illustrates, the Eskimo pain is the loss of myth, or the loss of honoring the source of life. The Eskimo pain is not far from our pain. In our modern society we have convinced ourselves that there is no source and thus there is nothing sacred to honor. The Eskimo life Julie describes before getting lost, and outside of seal camp, seemed to drift without purpose. It was a hodgepodge of modern gadgets that cut out the source entirely and thus prevented the need to honor anything at all. The sacred circle that connects life to its source was defaced for Eskimo and they were left with a handful of meaningless tasks. We are no different in our suffering than the Eskimo. Although, we think we best them through our gadgets. But, pure consumerism fatigues because it essentially apes the sacred circle. What is the source that we are honoring in our everyday living? Do we honor the Earth? The air we breathe? Clean water? Food obtained justly? Other human beings? Do we see anything in life as life giving? No doubt about it, gadgets are helpful when they assist in a task, but they are dangerous when they cut us off from the sacred. And, all life is sacred.