Ice Whale by Jean Craighead George
Posted November 5, 2015on:
How can one resist the opportunity to read Jean Craighead George’s last novel? From the author of My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves comes a tale of a great whale named Siku and the young Inuit boy. Actually, Ice Whale wasn’t quite finished when Jean Craighead George died in 2012 and so it was completed with the help of her two grown children. While the nature writing is well done, no one character is fully developed, and so this final story of hers is of uneven quality.
Nature writing was a clear strength for George. According to her website, besides having started to write at the early age of third grade, George came from a family of naturalists. On weekends, the family would camp in the woods near their home, gather edible plants, and climb trees to study owls. Later, George attended Penn State University graduating with a degree in Science and Literature. After her children were born, George returned to her love of nature and brought over 170 wild animals into their home, many of whom became characters in her books. Her love for and expertise of wildlife radiates through all of her animal stories, including Ice Whale.
Told in alternating voices, both human and whale, the latter’s narrative is especially strong. In chapter two, for example, we read how Siku’s mother taught him. She introduced him to the best coastal currents to travel on for migration. She showed him the importance of the sun. The bright rays that shone on the open water were angled—and became his clock and calendar. He learned how to find his way. As an adult, he would one day break ice three feet thick. Such is the early life of a bowhead whale.
Setting is also another clear strength for George. According to her website, George often traveled to the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Alaska to visit one of her grown children who serves as a biologist and studies the bowhead whales in Barrows. Her son would take George out to the science camp on the sea ice. There, she slept at -35 below zero, climbed great blocks of ice, and watched the open ocean for bowhead whales. She came to know the Eskimo whaling captains and visited their ice camps. In addition, George ate blubber, carried a gun to scare off polar bears, and dressed like an Eskimo to keep warm. The visits inspired more than one nature novel. Her love for and knowledge of the Inuit people comes through unmistakably in her stories of the cold North, including that of Ice Whale.
One of my favorite scenes is of Emily Toozak, after she becomes lost on an ice floe. In chapter twenty, for example, we read of how her Arctic instincts take over. She learns to make a shelter with a blanket and some broken boards. She tastes small bites of kelp blade. She searches out old ice to find water that is fresh and drained of salt. And then she began to think about how to get home.
Unfortunately, the lack of character development makes for a sometimes difficult read. George attempts to weave an epic tale that spans 200 years and multiple generations whose fate are tied to one whale. Perhaps if Siku’s narrative had taken on more of the center stage. Or perhaps if the curse of the Toozak family had simply been limited to the background story for Emily Toozak. Maybe then I would have felt more connected to this meaningful story.
As Ice Whale stands, I’d recommend first-time readers of Jean Craighead George seek out some of her other more famous works to start. Fans should however treasure her lyrical and wondrous voice. They’ll also appreciate her thought-provoking themes of the circle of life, environmentalism, and friendship. George has left behind a precious legacy, of which Ice Whale is a heartfelt coda.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?