Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain was one of my favorite books as a child, but this book was not - although I don't remember exactly disliking it in any way. And upon re-reading it, I remembered exactly why it wasn't a favorite: not much happens, until the end, and then the things that do happen aren't particularly happy.
There is a lot of explanation of wolf ecology, pack structure and society, and the tundra environment, which is interesting, but maybe not interesting enough to capture your average 5th grader's interest in the absence of a compelling story.
For example, this passage is typical:
As she packed to travel on, she thought about her escorts. Wolves did not like civilization. Where they had once dwelled all over North America they now lived in remote parts of Canada, in only two of the lower forty-eight states, and in the wilderness of Alaska. Even the roadless North Slope had fewer wolves than it did before the gussaks erected their military bases and brought airplanes, snowmobiles, electricity, and jeeps to the Arctic. (p. 133)The insights into Eskimo (today more correctly called Iñupiat or Iñupiaq) culture were fascinating, but as with other books about different cultures (like Island of the Blue Dolphins), I couldn't help wondering how much of this exotic world Jean Craighead George really got right. For some of the other Newbery authors I've reviewed here (Jerry Spinelli, Christopher Paul Curtis, and Richard Peck come to mind immediately), it is clear that the authors know the places and the peoples they're writing about intimately. I didn't get the same vibe here, which was a little disappointing.
An adult book that I read last year that covered similar topics, on the other hand, totally blew me away - check out Ordinary Wolves, by Seth Kantner, if you want a modern look at Iñupiat culture and wolves. Unfortunately, Ordinary Wolves is not really appropriate for elementary-aged school kids, and I don't know of any other looks at Arctic life that would be good for this age group. If you know of some, I'd love to hear about them in the comments.
Martha Stackhouse, a resident of Barrow, wrote this critical review of Julie of the Wolves for an education course at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks a few years ago. (Sometimes I seriously love the internet - twenty years ago, this perspective would have stayed in Fairbanks and Barrow). It may seem that some of her criticisms are minor points, but they do all add up.
I guess I'd still recommend this, with some reservations, for kids who want to read about the Arctic world. But really, as much as I love George's other books, I'd like to have a book with a more interesting story and more of the nitty gritty of Native culture on the North Slope today. Maybe a member of one of the Native groups in the north or Seth Kantner should write a book for young adults and older grade-school kids.