Talking with Wolves, Then Writing About Them
Interview Jean Craighead George
BOSTON — If she were given the traditional back-to-school writing assignment, "What did you do on your summer vacation?" Jean Craighead George's essay would be anything but cliched.
Ms. George, author of the Newbery Award-winning "Julie of the Wolves," was in Yellowstone National Park this summer, witnessing the reintroduction of wolves into the 2.5 million-acre sanctuary.
"We had an experience I'll never forget," she says. "I watched a black wolf stalk a mother grizzly and her two cubs. He would come up to the cubs - and they were playful; they'd bat at him and fall over backward - then he'd turn and run, trying to lure them away from their mother.
"She would bring them back. Of course, one swing of her paw and the wolf would have been in the Grand Canyon.... So I'm sure that mother bear was 'telling' her cubs about wolves. At one point she ran them up a tree, showing them how to escape a wolf."
George, who wrote her popular novel 25 years ago, has a special affinity for wolves: "I am intrigued that their society is very much like ours - with leaders (alphas), vice presidents (betas), and cabinet members. They all have talents, and the wolf pack recognized them. I love their devotion to each other. They stay together partly for economic reasons, but mainly because of their deep affection and loyalty."
"Julie of the Wolves" fans won't be surprised by George's affection for wolves. It's evident in that memorable story of a young Eskimo girl named Miyax (Julie is her English name) who becomes lost on the tundra and is protected by a wolf pack.
The novel came about rather serendipitously. George had traveled to Alaska for Reader's Digest to research a piece on wolves. Her experiences there became the framework for "Julie of the Wolves." When she and her son Luke flew into Barrow, he happened to see a young Eskimo girl out on the tundra and remarked that she was "awfully little to be out there all alone." Later, mother and son were themselves lost briefly on the flat tundra, bereft of landmarks.
But most important of all: George "talked" to a wolf in its own language. After watching Dr. Michael Fox communicate with a wild male alpha wolf, George declared, "I want to talk to a wolf." She chose Silver, a caged female with four pups. Fox showed her how to approach wolves. He said to move slowly, to whimper (as though saying, "I'm your friend. I want to be friendly"), and to look for a "wolf smile" (a wagging tail).
"I worked and worked at it, but I couldn't get her to come to me," George recalls. "Then right before we were to leave, I tried one more time. At first she walked off with her pups. Then she came back, walked right up to me, 'smiled' with a tail wag, and looked me right in the eye. Oh, those golden-yellow eyes of the wolf! You can feel yourself being pulled in. I knew I had been accepted - and that I had spoken to another species."
George carried those experiences to her brown-shingled, hillside home in Chappaqua, N.Y., where she wrote "Julie of the Wolves." She had no inkling it would be an award-winning book.
In fact, George says, "I thought I'd be severely criticized because it dealt with communication between man and wolf. At that time, the first experiments were just being run on animal communication. I didn't think an audience would tolerate it. But they did. They loved it."
For more than 20 years, there were no sequels to the story. "Children would ask me what happened to Julie, and I'd say: 'What do you think happened?' I got some marvelous stories," she says.
But then another of her sons moved to Barrow, and she visited regularly, becoming more involved with the country, the culture, and - of course - the wolves. One day, she says, "It was just time to write more."
"Julie" was written in 1994 (see Nov. 4, 1994, Monitor for review). It tells the story of Miyax, or Julie, returning to her Inuit village. She faces many challenges and courageously protects the wolves that once saved her life.
This season, a second sequel, "Julie's Wolf Pack," has been released. It continues the story, but from the wolves' point of view. (See review Page B6)
Each of the tales has its share of sadness. Many readers shed tears at the death of a favorite wolf. (George admits she too has cried for her wolves.) "The mortality rate for the pups is very high," she notes. "Over 85 percent don't make it to adulthood."
The drama in her books is not only a result of fine writing but also of accurately portraying the animals. George travels, observes, and does thorough research to give her audience exact information about each species and its environment.
"We owe children reliable knowledge," she says, "the very best we can give them."