In two posthumously published stories, award-winning Jean Craighead George (1919-2012) shows her lifetime of dedication as an environmentalist and naturalist.
“ICE WHALE,” by Jean Craighead George, Dial, $17.99 (f) (ages 6-10)
“Ice Whale” tells of the effects of man’s exploitation of the bowhead whale in the Canadian Arctic and a boy’s promise to save a special member of the mighty species.
The setting is 1848 in the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia. The bowheads have been the food and fuel for several native groups for thousands of years. Their controlled killings are completed with respect for the whale families. When Yankee hunters begin to search the ocean for whales to slaughter, they threaten to deplete the whale population and harm the livelihood of the natives.
Young Toosak has the grand honor of witnessing the birth of a baby whale with unusual markings on its chin and feels an immediate bond with the pup, calling him Siku. But when he unintentionally discloses the bowheads’ breeding grounds to the hunters, the slaughter begins.
Toosak confesses his sin to the local shaman, who banishes him from the village with the admonition to protect the baby whale, Siku, as long as he lives. The curse will remain “until the whale dies or saves a Toosak.”
The curse becomes the family legend and mission for the next seven generations.
The Toosak family increases, and 130 years after the curse, a young Emily — “not raised in the traditional Eskimo ways of survival” — falls from a boat and is swept downriver. As she clutches an ice floe, the whale with the distinguishing markings appears.
The chapters of “Ice Whale” alternate between land and ocean settings, describing the whales’ struggle to survive and the Toosak descendants continuing to recognize Siku the whale. In the final chapter, almost as an afterthought, George projects that Siku could possibly still be alive in 2048 because bowhead whales often live to be 200 years old.
“Ice Whale” joins a long list of survival stories by Jean Craighead George, notably “Julie of the Wolves” (1972), winner of the Newbery Medal, and “My Side of the Mountain” (1959), which received the Newbery Honor award.
At the time of her death, Jean Craighead George had nearly finished “Ice Whale,” and her daughter, Twig C. George, a writer and teacher, and son John Craighead "Craig" George, a botanist and professor in Barrow, Alaska, put the finishing touches on the manuscript. An afterword written by her son adds much to the fictional story as he provides pertinent information about bowhead whales and their unique qualities and value in the Arctic North.
“GALÁPAGOS GEORGE,” by Jean Craighead George, illustration by Wendell Minor, Harper, $15.99 (ages 4-8)
The author highlights the saddleback tortoise, particularly one fondly named Giantess George, in this evolutionary tale. Originally from South America, the saddleback was later found in the Galápagos Islands and became a focus of interest for scientist Charles Darwin on Pinta Island.
Giantess George lived almost 200 years “but left behind long-necked offspring who had longer-necked offspring, who had even longer-necked offspring.”
Wendell Minor, who has illustrated many of Jean Craighead George’s picture books, adds much to this story with his trademark realistic watercolors of the adaptations of nature.