Review: Ice Whale

29 May

Jean Craighead George is beloved for writing My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves. After her death in 2012, two of her children helped piece together her mostly-finished novel Ice Whale, which Dial Books just released.

large_Ice_Whale-198x300The book is, in a word, stunning. It’s less than 200 pages, but it spans 200 years, the lifetime of a bowhead whale. The story begins in 1848, when Toozak, a boy from the Yup’ik tribe, sees a special whale being born. The Yup’ik lived on the west coast of what is now Alaska and on the east coast of Siberia.

Toozak knows getting the privilege of seeing a whale born makes him special, but he is cursed by the village shaman after accidentally betraying the location of the whales to the Yankee whalers. He is charged to protect the whale he saw being born. He calls the whale Siku, and the curse will only be broken if the whale saves a Toozak or if Toozak and his progeny keep the whale safe through its entire life.

In the first chapter alone, I learned so much about whales. Craighead George creates symbols to represent whale songs and language. Certain chapters are told from the whale Siku’s point of view. In these chapters, Siku’s name is represented in symbols that look something like __~~-__~~. It’s a clever way of showing that whales have a complex language of their own.

Readers will also learn a lot about different kinds of Eskimo tribes. The novel acknowledges that there were and are many different nations and languages in the Alaska area. The tribes and the whales are affected by the European and American travelers who hunt whales for their oil and then their baleen. By the time we reach the 5th Toozak, he has an English and an Eskimo name: Charlie Toozak V.

The book also follows several generations of a Yankee whaler named Tom Boyd. A large chunk of the story takes place in 1980, when Emily Toozak VII gets lost on an ice floe and meets one of Tom Boyd’s descendants. She is saved by remembered knowledge of the old Eskimo ways of survival and by Siku’s help.

By the end, the story ties together gracefully. Do yourself a favor and find this book. It took me a couple hours to read, but it will stick with me for much longer.

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