The story is set on the vast, inhospitable, treeless plain of the far north, known as the tundra. Across the tundra sweep hard winds, driving snows, and thick blankets of fog. Beneath its surface is the permafrost, a layer of permanently frozen soil through which water cannot drain and roots cannot grow. Tundra is covered by a shallow soggy carpet of dwarf plants, sedges, mosses, lichens, and grasses.
The tundra environment pervades the story, functioning almost like a character and contributing to the details of the plot. There is no wood with which to make a fire, so Julie gathers dried caribou droppings instead. The landscape is rolling, with no obvious landmarks. Julie camps in a small depression for protection from the wind. Whenever she leaves, she must take care to mark a path so she can find her way back. The arctic summer is only two or three months long: during this time, the sun never sets; it simply circles the horizon. Its movement cannot be used to distinguish east from west. Julie must wait until autumn, when migrating birds point the way south, and winter, when the pole star appears in the sky, before she can find her way through the wilderness.
Julie of the Wolves is a relatively brief book. It is divided into three parts: a long section detailing Julie's life on the tundra and her association with the wolves; a short flashback concerning her life on Nunivak Island and her unsatisfactory relationship with Daniel; and a long section on her journey back to civilization.
The wolves are heavily anthropomorphized, and Julie's relationship with them is very sentimentalized. The death of Amaroq affects sympathetic young readers rather like the death of Bambi's mother. George's use of anthropomorphism does not trivialize the material; it makes it far more compelling. The impact of the novel's environmental lesson is very strong as a result of the emotional bonds built up between the reader and the animal characters.
The city-country dichotomy that underlies the story line draws to some extent on traditional pastoral motifs. Pleasure, virtue, and love are discovered in the idealized existence of the country, where characters find relief from the stresses of city life and civilization. Realism intrudes on the pastoral ideal, however. Julie eventually recognizes that the wilderness is only a temporary place for escape. The pastoral ideal becomes internalized: it is a memory of a lost golden age, a memory that must be carefully guarded in the imagination where it becomes the standard of virtue.
(The entire section is 641 words.)