Jean Craighead George has always been a favorite author of mine. I admire her children for finishing her book. This is an interesting and unusual story. One of my students chose it and really liked it, although felt at times that it was confusing going back and forth in time.
I love the author's style and the fact her wonderful children finished her book. What could be better then learning facts about nature while being thoroughly entertained? Characters are ones you care about and want to hear more from. I thought the ending could have been more satisfying, but couldn't tell you how. It was just my feeling when I realized it was finished.
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.
With the help of her children, Jean Craighead George has provided yet again a wondrous book! I have read all of her books and loved each one. George always tells the story of a friendship formed through nature. She inspires children around the globe to love, care for, and make friends with nature. In my opinion, she will always be the best author in the whole world even though she is no longer with us. In her last book, she tells the story of a friendship, between a young Eskimo and a Bowhead Whale, that goes on for two hundred years. (It begins in the 1800s and continues into 2048, the future.) The young Eskimo boy tells some whalers about a secret cove where whales live, and the village shaka tells the boy he must now protect the whale until it dies, and his descendants must do the same until the whale breaks the curse by saving a member of the boy's family. Each year the boy paddles through oceans on dangerous journeys, protecting the whale, as he makes the long trip between the North and South Poles. This last addition to her collection of books will yet again thrill young readers. I also recommend George's My Side of the Mountain series, the Julie of the Wolves series, and There's an Owl in the Shower! JRL, age 9