Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Inuit literature for young people

The Country of Wolves by Neil Christopher is based on an animated film adaptation of a traditional Inuit story. While the film seems to have garnered positive response, including awards, reviews of the graphic novel adaptation have been more mixed. I’m of the same sentiment about the book. I disliked the stereotypical depiction of wolves, but otherwise the story makes for a quick read and could result in a lot of conversation in a classroom.

Let me get my negative reaction out of the way, so that I can focus on the positives of The Country of Wolves. Throughout time, wolves have been portrayed as bloodthirsty, cruel, and evil. And while this conception of them might be how Native myths and legends depicted them, I dislike seeing this cliché perpetuated. In The Country of Wolves, the instant that wolves smell man they’re on the trail and the warning is given that they’ll hunt until they kill. In fact the only way to stop them is to destroy their leader. Yet wolves can form emotional attachments, show aversion to fighting, and possess intelligence. Wolves are also a necessary part of the ecosystem. So, while The Country of Wolves might make for a terrifying horror story, it’ll also sadly encourage young people to view wolves as bad. Any educator who uses this book should also combine it with lessons such as this one: Stereotyping and Bias.

The back pages to The Country of Wolves explain that the stories are sacred to The Inuit, they link them to their ancestors and to the land. And versions of this particular tale have been passed on for generations in communities across the Arctic. I did look at many summaries of Native myths and legends, but couldn’t find this one. However, there were plenty which featured the wolf as evil. Also, the author certainly should know the tales, having moved to the region many years ago as an educator. Near the end of Country of Wolves, I learned that there were several references included in the story itself to the spirit world such as Northern Lights and Watchful Moon. Some reviewers suggested this information would have better placed near the front. I’d encourage educators to supplement this tale with materials about Inuit folklore, such as an intermediate graphic novel study which according to Goodminds is provided online at The Nunavut Arctic College.


You’ll notice that I’ve referred more than once to educators. Despite my concurring with the mixed reviews, I did find the plot to be haunting and action-packed. It also included a morbid twist. The graphics were also visually pleasing and adequately enhanced the text. The Country of Wolves will no doubt appeal to many boys, as well as folklore buffs. Beyond that, I’d  recommend it for use in the classroom to stir discussions about stereotypes and about Native culture.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Waiting for Unicorns is set in the unusual location of Manitoba. This is one reason I felt drawn to Beth Hautala’s debut novel. I also appreciated the relationships and themes explored in this quiet and beautiful story. Despite some minor quibbles, I found Waiting for Unicorns a poignant tale of loss and hope.

My favorite part about Waiting for Unicorns is how the main character, Talia, deals with death. Her mother has recently died of cancer. This leaves Talia and her father feeling broken. Thus, while Talia didn’t want her father to leave her for his research, it also feels of vital importance for her father to find the whales he studies. Somehow, this will help keep him together. It also becomes critical for the wishes Talia has written on scraps of paper stored in a mason jar to come true. One in particular, involving narwhals, has to happen. If they do, maybe her wishes will also allow Talia to see her mother one more time and to say a final farewell. Once her father does leave Talia for his research, it also becomes critical for him to call and visit Talia as scheduled. When this plan ends up being jeopardized, Talia found herself falling further apart, unable to deal with additional loss.

The North is a region not often portrayed in young adult literature and I enjoyed seeing it as the setting. From my limited research, it seems as if Hautala mostly gets her facts and details right about Northern Canada. The people in Churchill are a mix, some being Aboriginal hunters from the community and others being academic researchers from outside. Thus, it is appropriate for Talia’s father to have been hired to study whales there. Temperature is that of subarctic climate. Thus, it is also appropriate for Hautala to use the cold to describe both how Talia feels physically and emotionally after her mother’s death. Finally, tourism is a significant industry, drawing spectators to see natural wildlife including polar bears. It does seem however that polar bear attacks are rare, which means the attack of one on Talia’s friend seemed to serve more as a plot device intended to deepen the thematic exploration of loss than that of an actual realistic event.

Hautala notes in my interview with her that there’s little written about the Inuit and so she wanted to know more about them. From my limited research, it also seems as if Hautala mostly gets her facts and details right about the Inuit. Being a people of the land, they depend on meat for their food. Thus, many of them would be hunters and one of their main foods would be caribou. Although many Inuit do still hold to these traditional ways of life, they also live in modern homes, use snowmobiles for transportation in the winter, and in other ways depend on white man’s conveniences. I did find it interesting Hautala choose to have Talia and her father live with an Inuit woman, given that apparently they’re in the minority of the Aboriginal cultures in Churchill. The portrayal, however, of Suri seems authentic. It seems reasonable that she would serve a mix of Inuit food such as tuktu or caribou fried in fat along with Canadian food such as orange juice and toast. It’s also realistic that Suri might share Inuit lore such as that about how the narwhal were formed and to also share memories of Talia’s mom.  However, Talia’s revulsion over eating moose and caribou meat seemed a little excessive (and thereby perhaps offensive) in the light of only around 3% of Americans being vegetarian.

As with many novels, the start of The Waiting for Unicorns felt weak in contrast to the rest. To move for a summer from Woods Hole, Massachusetts to Churchill, Manitoba, Talia and her father drive to Montreal. There, he sells the family truck, because one can’t drive to Churchill. Instead, Talia and her father now board an airplane that takes them all the way to Churchill. If this is a temporary move, why sell the truck? If they’re unable to take it all the way with them, why not simply fly the entire way, as apparently they did at the end of the trip? Once I got past this befuddlement, I often found myself teary-eyed at how sensitively Hautala handles the shared grief of Talia and her father.

Hautala says that she had to wrestle through a lot of bad writing and a lot of rejection before she finally told the story I needed to tell. The result is a culturally-rich tale of new landscapes, new friendships, and lots of healing moments.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

BethHautalaBeth Hautala is a former associate magazine editor, and copy writer. She now owns and operates Red House Media, an  advertising agency, with her husband. They live in Minnesota with their four children. Waiting for Unicorns is Hautala’s first novel. I’ll review it tomorrow. Save the date: June 19! 


ALLISON: Describe yourself as a child.

BETH: I was a very introspective child, thoughtful and constantly reading. I grew up in the country/woods, in the same house I live in now. (Cool story there: My husband and I bought it ten years ago and interim owners after my parents sold the place). My heart was divided between the outdoors and all that nature had to offer by way of exploration and discovery, and the pages of books. I was a late reader, not starting to read until second grade but once I started I couldn’t stop. It was like an entire world opened for me. It was an amazing feeling.

ALLISON: Who mentored you as a teen?

BETH: My parents had a huge influence on my life. I was home schooled, so my mom and dad served the role of both parents and teachers. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. Other writers also mentored me–books had a huge influence in my life. I was not saturated by technology in any sense, so my local library was an endless source of discovery for me. If I was interested in something, I read about it. And I read about the people who wrote about the things that interested me.

ALLISON: What do you like to do besides write?

BETH: I still love to read, of course. But my time is now monopolized by my family. 🙂 I love fixing and repairing things—making old things new again. Power tools, paint, and some abandoned furniture are a recipe for a perfect afternoon. I also enjoy gardening, cooking, and any opportunity to learn something new. Oh and coffee. Coffee is a hobby, right?

ALLISON: How do you balance being a mom and owning a business with writing a book?

BETH: I am firmly convinced that there is always time in our lives for the things we love, no matter how busy we are. We set priorities and make what matters happen. Writing and business ownership and family are a lot to balance at times, but I do the best I can with what I have. Sometimes I’m a great writer and a less-than great parent. Other times I’m an amazing mom and my writing suffers. But I try and give myself grace. My children matter and they know it. Writing matters. Our business matters. And there is time enough for all of those things. When I’m under deadline I make sure I have help so I can keep all my plates spinning. And I write form 4-6 am almost every day. That’s a sacrifice of time/sleep I’ve chosen to make. And it works for now.

ALLISON: What have been the benefits for you of a writing group?

BETH: The support of a writing group is fantastic. All of my “writing groups” have been virtual. I’ve never had the luxury of sitting with an actual group of people in a room to review and encourage one another’s writing. Someday! But the friends I’ve had online and in various social media contexts have been amazing. Just having another set of eyes to look at your work and offer suggestions is powerful. A good critique partner can take your writing places you never imagined. Definitely worth the time and effort!

Specific benefits? Objective readers; different opinions and tastes and perspectives; different writing and reading backgrounds; a fresh set of eyes! All of these things lend themselves to better words on a page at the end of revisions.


ALLISON: Why middle school instead of other age groups?

BETH:This age group is my favorite. Kids are still young enough to believe, but yet old enough to discern. It’s a magical time of coming alive. Kids in this age group are waking up to the fact that they are unique and have something to contribute to the world. That’s a powerful realization. I want to write to that waking-up. That aliveness.

ALLISON: Have you ever visited Manitoba? How did you choose it as a setting?

BETH: I’ve never been to Manitoba. I wish! Someday. I chose it for the setting because it is the natural habitat for Narwhal whales and I needed a place where Tal’s father could do his research and a place where Tal could stay and grow and be safe in the midst of her father’s absence. Churchill was the perfect fit.

ALLISON: What personal experience or research helped you with understanding Inuit life?

BETH: My grandfather was a bush pilot in Alaska and Canada and I grew up listening to his stories. It wasn’t until after I’d finished writing Waiting For Unicorns that he told me he’d flow into Churchill several times. My desire to connect with Inuit culture came partly from these stories and my grandfather’s history. But there is also so little written about this people group, and I wanted to both know more and say more about them than has been said, in as positive a light as I could. Diversity is an amazing thing. It’s a precious gift and the more we allow other people into our lives, the greater chance we have of loving and living well.

ALLISON: Describe the journey to publication.

BETH: Long. 🙂 Long and challenging and beautiful. I’ve been writing for as long as I’ve been reading, and writing a book was always chief on the list of writing achievements for me. But I had to wrestle through a lot of bad writing and a lot of rejection before I finally told the story I needed to tell, and found my way to my agent and later my publisher. I’ve written in detail about that process here: Submission No More

ALLISON: How has your life changed since publication?

BETH: I don’t know that it has changed dramatically. I mean, it has changed in the sense that I’ve seen a life-long dream come true! Certainly. Something I have worked incredibly hard to achieve has finally come to pass. So I am more deeply thankful for people, experiences, time, health, and the encouragement I’ve received. Yes, even for the rejection! It made me a better, stronger writer.

Also, life has changed in the sense that I’m a little more knowledgeable. I was so naïve when this process began. And I’m still a literary baby, but I feel so much better equipped to do this again, and also to encourage others along their own writing journeys. But other than that, life has not really changed that much. Right now I am just doing what I love–working at writing, being wife and a mom, and trying to keep the chaos to a minimum!

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