Hackles rise;Children's Books

20th March 1998 at 00:00
JULIE OF THE WOLVES. Julie. Jean Craighead George. Red Fox pound;3.50 each.

FOXSPELL. Gillian Rubinstein. Orion pound;3.99.

Arctic wolves and Adelaide foxes feature in these powerful tales of nature versus the modern world. Janni Howker sees the fur fly

From opposite ends of the Earth, two authors are exploring the traumatic margins where modern industrial culture meets the wild. Now in her late seventies, Jean Craighead George writes with a holistic reverence for the natural world and with the passion and sorrow of a naturalist who has seen the Arctic wilderness of wolf and Eskimo irrevocably intruded upon.

Julie of the Wolves, first published in the United States in 1972, appears here alongside its sequel, Julie, first published in 1994. The heroine is a young Alaskan Eskimo whose two names symbolise the conflict her people face. She is Miyax, daughter of the great hunter, Kapugen, but she is also Julie, US citizen, complete with penpal and aspirations to go to college.

In the first gripping adventure, MiyaxJulie is lost in the tundra. She must use every ancient Inuit skill to survive. She joins a wolf pack and shares in their complex, fascinating and dangerous lives. With an irony that begets tragedy, the wolves that ensure her survival are being hunted by the father she believed dead. In a traumatic scene, Julie's wolf-brother is shot by the airborne marksman: "Miyax buried her fingers in Kapu's fur. 'They did not even stop to get him!' she cried. 'They did not even kill him for money.'" But Kapugen is hunting the wolves for commercial reasons: they are a threat to his valuable herd of musk oxen. His adoption of the white man's "Minnesota law" (justifying the destruction of predators) is dictated by his people's need to survive.

In these heart-rending novels, Jean Craighead George gives us a rare glimpse beyond our own perceptions in writing that is as educative as it is exciting. That the native Arctic peoples can adapt to new influences confronting them is testimony to their ancient survival skills. The author's vision remains clear, despite the grief, loss and admiration that resounds like a distant howl throughout these marvellous books.

Voted Children's Book of the Year in Australia, Foxspell deals less with the wild than with the dangerous, shadowy world of the feral. Neither 12-year-old Tod nor the foxes that roam the fringes of urban Adelaide are native to the place.

Unhappy at school and disturbed by the loss of his father and the uncertain affections of his sisters and hard-smoking mother, Tod is led into the marginalised world of the fox-man, Dan Russell, and of the street gang that terrorises the neighbourhood. This is powerful stuff - the deep fantasy of an Alan Garner novel combined with the no-holds-barred realism of Melvin Burgess's Junk.

Danger is never far away as the glamour of living on the edge draws Tod to witness and participate in senseless and inevitable deaths. That I found the relationship between Tod and his fox-nature far more eerie before Dan Russell's "explanation" may be simply an adult's qualm. This book, without doubt, has the power to grip and shake the reader.

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