Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: On Girl Survivor Stories

Okay, so this is a case of me kind of screwing myself over, but I made one off-handed comment in yesterday's article on cities about how Julie of the Wolves made me want to be a hermit, and all of a sudden I was flooded with memories and feelings and freaking intense reminiscences about how much I loved that series.

And then, while I was still wading through the epic amount of nostalgia I brought upon myself, I started thinking about the other books I liked when I was ten, and I remembered that I was super obsessed with Island of the Blue Dolphins as well. Which got me to thinking. See, I'm not a super outdoorsy kind of person, and while I did spend some time in my childhood building treeforts and playing in the woods, most of my adventures were imaginary and fictional. I've always preferred books and stories to going out to where the insects are. So why was I so very into these stories about girls by themselves, forced to face off against nature?

At the time, obviously, I didn't think anything of it. I mean, who doesn't love a good survivalism story once in a while? But these were more than just stories for me. Julie/Miyax and Karana are both girls only a little older than I was at the time, forced by circumstances outside of their control to live outside society. And the thing is, they do live. They thrive. They become formidable women who challenge the world around them. I didn't give it any critical thought as a ten year old, but looking back I can totally see why that appealed to me. I wanted to know that I would be okay, and these stories told me I would.

But I also want to point out here that both of these books are kind of remarkable in and of themselves. Both Julie of the Wolves and Island of the Blue Dolphins are young adult coming of age novels of the sort actually assigned in middle school classrooms. They feature Native American/Indigenous female protagonists who rebel against their patriarchal societies. In Julie/Miyax's case she rebels against her family and their insistence on her marriage to an older man. Karana is fighting back against the bad leadership of her tribe and the incursions of colonizing outsiders onto her island.

Both of these girls become women who care very deeply about nature and who have very strong feelings about power. They understand the world far more holistically than we pretty much ever get to see in fiction, and they find strength not from male relatives or relationships, but simply from themselves. But more than that, these are the stories of two women who take on the most brutal, harsh conditions life can offer, and come out on top. It's really no wonder I love them both so much.

Julie of the Wolves, for the record, is the first book in a trilogy of stories about a young Yupik girl, Julie/Miyax, struggling to find her place in a rapidly modernizing Alaska. Written by Jean Craighead George, the book is a fictional account of a young woman who runs away from her abusive and overbearing family, intending to get to a friend in San Francisco. But when the tundra proves to be too much for her, she finds shelter by becoming part of a wolf pack. The pack soon adopts her as one of their own, and she lives with them for months, before finally deciding to rejoin society.

And then she goes back to the wolves because society hasn't changed all that much in the past few months, and that's where we get the second book, Julie. The third volume, Julie's Wolf Pack, is written from the perspective of the wolves and has always been my favorite.

While the majority of the story revolves around Julie's/Miyax's* time with the wolf pack, it's worth pointing out that this book tackles some really intense issues. Our heroine did not just wander off into the tundra because she was bored, but rather ran away from a genuinely abusive home life. Her mother dead and her father missing and presumed gone as well, Miyax is forced to live with her cruel aunt. The aunt allows Miyax to leave only under the condition that she marry Daniel, a boy from the tribe. Miyax is, for the record, thirteen.

She also agrees to the marriage, figuring that life with Daniel can't be worse than life with her aunt. But it is. After Daniel tries to rape her (because they're married and technically speaking marital rape was not a crime or even a recognized offense at the writing of the book), Miyax runs away, hoping to make a new life for herself. Or she'll die out on the tundra, but at least she'll die free.

The book then shows how Miyax becomes Julie, a fearless and beloved member of the wolf pack that takes her in. By mimicking the actions of the wolf cubs, Julie is able to make herself a place in the pack, and it's a place that very much heals the broken parts of her heart that have been longing for a real family. It's very moving. In the end, it's not so much that Julie leaves because she doesn't want to stay with the wolves any more, but because she knows she doesn't have to stay any longer. She can return to civilization because she has been changed.

Similarly, Island of the Blue Dolphins is also about a young woman who lives outside of society for a long time before making the conscious decision to return. The difference being that while Miyax leaves her home voluntarily, Karana never leaves hers at all, and is instead stranded and left behind.

Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell, is actually based on the true story of a young girl who lived by herself on an island off the coast of California for eighteen years before being rescued. The woman then died a few months after rescue.** In O'Dell's novel, the facts and names have been changed, but the basic premise of the story remains. 

Karana and her family live on their island. It is the only island and place that she has ever known, and she loves it. One day their island is found by Russian Aleuts who ask to hunt their waters for sea otters. The tribe agrees, but the traders try to swindle them out of the deal, and a massive fight erupts. Many of the elders and leaders of the tribe, and most of the men, are killed. Karana's father among them. Their new leader decides that the best plan of action is to leave the island. He takes off in a canoe to find a new home for them and, sure enough, a few months later a large boat comes to take everyone away.

Karana gets on the boat with everyone else, but when she realizes that her brother isn't there, she gets off, knowing that the ship will likely leave without her. The siblings assume that the boat will come back for them in a few months, but then it doesn't. A little while later, her brother dies. Left entirely alone, Karana is forced to find a way to make her new life. She must learn how to get food, make shelters, and hide herself away when the Aleuts come back. It's only years later that she finally decides the time has come for her to rejoin society, mostly because she's lonely.

This book is different from the first mainly for the simple fact that Karana has much less say in her plight than Julie does. She is not left on the island on purpose. And while she knew that might happen, she didn't actually want it to. She even tries several times to be rescued, but something holds her back each time. In short, while Karana's story is arguably more impressive than Julie's, it's also less about her agency. It's her will to survive that makes Karana a hero, not so much her decision to buck tradition and go against the grain.

But, like I said above, both of these books are extraordinary for how incredibly subversive they are. I mean, I feel impressed when a book of this reading level shows a female character with any level of emotional complexity, let alone ones where the heroes are Native American teenage girls who essentially conquer nature. 

And I think that it's definitely not overstating it to say that these heroines helped shape the current movement of young adult dystopian fiction that features badass, survivalist teenage girls. Your Katniss Everdeens and Tally Youngbloods. I can see Karana and Miyax/Julie in those girls. Which is good. I want that. But I wish more than just their will to survive despite the odds had made it through.

What makes Julie/Miyax and Karana such revolutionary heroines is their reaction to their circumstances. These are young women who society has called worthless. Who racism has called ignorant savages and who modern society would very much like to leave behind. Yet they find comfort and survival through their traditions. They find the good and the useful and fashion ways to live self-determined lives despite their circumstances.

I love Katniss and Tally, but there's something rather empty about them, because they come from societies where the past has been intentionally forgotten. They don't have power like Julie/Miyax and Karana do - the kind of power that comes from owning your culture even when your culture has been degraded and called worthless superstition. In other words, without the race aspect, those stories just aren't as interesting. Because diverse stories are better stories. Diverse heroines matter.

I can only imagine what these books must mean to little girls of color, considering all that they meant to me. And while neither Scott O'Dell nor Jean Craighead George was Native American, they wrote good stories about marginalized groups that need representation, and they don't let white people off the hook. Thank goodness.

As to why these stories of epic survivalism appealed to me so much, given that I wasn't even much of one for camping, I think it all comes down to confidence. I never felt strong when I was a kid, but these stories helped me see that I could be. Not in a loud showy way, but that sometimes strength is just a simple refusal to give up, even when it seems there's no way out. I will always be grateful for learning that. And the ridiculous amount of stuff I now know about wolves? Bonus.

*This confusion over the name of the main character stems from the fact that the protagonist herself seems unsure what she would like to be called. At first she thinks of herself as Miyax when in the context of her childhood and Julie in the context of the wolves, but later she comes to think of herself as Miyax the woman. What I'm saying is that it's a complicated and sympathetic vision of what it means to communicate your identity through two totally different cultural lenses. Part of why I love this book.

**This is actually incredibly common, as it turns out that being a hermit/living far away from human civilization for a long time gives you a really terrible immune system. 

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