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Polly Carlson-Voiles - SUMMER OF THE WOLVES

A children's book by Polly Carlson-Voiles.

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"She had to smile. How many people had slept with a wolf?"

  • Apr 1, 2012

There is a promotional blurb at barnesandnoble.com about Polly Carlson-Voiles's 2012 novel for ten-year old and upwards, SUMMER OF THE WOLVES. The blurb begins, "Julie of the Wolves meets Hatchet in this middle grade novel that follows orphaned twelve-year-old Nika and her seven-year-old brother Randall as they leave a California foster home to visit a long-lost uncle in the wilderness lake country of Northern Minnesota." 


I had not read either JULIE OF THE WOLVES or HATCHET, but recall the former coming up several times in SUMMER OF THE WOLVES. So I looked them both up.  


-- (1) In JULIE OF THE WOLVES (1972) by Jean Craighead George,  Julie is a young eskimo girl who runs away from home across the tundra towards modern life to the south and survives thanks to a friendly pack of wolves whose language she learns. Its shared motif with SUMMER OF THE WOLVES: wolves and humans in close contact


-- (2) In Gary Paulsen's 1987 HATCHET, Brian, a 13-year old boy, depressed by his parents' divorce, is in a plane crash and survives for 54 days in a Canadian wilderness thanks to a hatchet given him by his mother. Its shared motif with SUMMER OF THE WOLVES: breakup of a nuclear family and a child's alienation from adults.


Yes, I agree the Barnes & Noble blurb is good: "JULIE OF THE WOLVES meets HATCHET" in Polly Carlson-Voiles's book for fifth graders and up: SUMMER OF THE WOLVES.   


Our novel's heroine Annika "Nika" McNeill is 12 and she and her seven year old brother Randall are in Pasadena, California, living with court-assigned foster mother Meg. "Nineteen months, two weeks, and five days" ago when Mika was 10 1/2 the children became full orphans when their mother was killed in a car accident. Their father had died earlier in military service abroad. Nika and Randall had now been eleven months with Meg. Nika has a girl friend from school. Things are looking up.


Suddenly a social worker phones with news that in two weeks, long-lost paternal uncle Ian McNeill is flying them to northern Minnesota for the summer. Ian is a career animal researcher and was off in isolation studying wolves in Finland and Russia and only recently learned of their mother's death. 


Nika is not happy about being uprooted and never settles down in Northern Minnesota while Randall lives with neighboring boys in a happy home- and has a ball boating, fishing and enjoying the cool climate and forest. On a field trip by plane with Uncle Ian, Nika and he discover a recently killed mother wolf and rescue her one uncaptured cub. Almost certainly, the killer is crazy old Bristo, a man who illegally trades in wolves, cougars, foxes, otters and other wild animals that he catches. Bristo needs medical help but refuses to take it. Meanwhile Nika, Ian and some of Ian's professional colleagues raise the wolf pup -- named Khan for Genghis Khan --  all summer and Nika has a big hand in the complex process. She also writes up her notes to count for papers that she has to write for her school back in Pasadena.


That is basically the main plot: Nika enjoys raising Khan and learns much about wolves and their relation to dogs and humans. Resenting adults telling her what to do, Nika violates just about every rule that the wolf professionals order her to obey (e. g., Khan can never be released back into the wild and survive): she takes pup Khan on weekly secret trips out into the forest without even a leash. She will not accept that he might turn on her. The only bad thing that happens to Khan on these unpermitted encounters is a losing encounter with a skunk. The moral seems to be that little girls can safely ignore the prudent advice of adults who know what they are talking about. 


Throughout Nika remains very unhappy, missing her dead mother, Pasadena and her old foster mother Meg, resentful of Uncle Ian for not letting her make a pet of Khan and on and on. She runs away by bus once Khan is penned in a two-acre reserve in a new nearby center. The plot does have a resolution or sorts, but I won't spoil it for you.


There is also a parallel secondary plot, also well-crafted. It is the story of an older female wolf later named Luna who, like Khan, had been rescued as a pup and well cared for by a human, an old woman about 50 miles from where Ian McNeill and the children live. In a storm, Luna escapes her pen and is later captured by Bristo. 


The two plots are the best features of SUMMER OF THE WOLVES. They frame for young readers a considerable amount of didactic information about wolves. New to me were that wolves develop something like webbed feet which function almost like snowshoes in winter.


Here is a passage about the relationship developing between girl and wolf cub:


"He sniffed her closed eyelids, rested his nose on the side of her face with a sigh, then readjusted when his nose slipped off. ... he snuggled against the curve of her stomach and folds of the sleeping bag. ... She had to smile. How many people had slept with a wolf?" (Ch. 14)


Almost all the characters are one dimensional trying to be two-dimensional. Their behavior, even when entirely rational, often seems unmotivated, stiff and unspontaneous. Young Nika is permitted to do dangerous things over and over and she tempts a good-hearted neighbor boy to help her take out her anger illegally on crazy old Bristo. 


With some skill the author invites the reader to imagine how certain characters will probably interact by novel's end: the two wolves Luna and young Khan are surely going to meet. Ian will fall in love with one of his helpers. But some things happen with no obvious relation to anything else. Thus from time to time a wild bear roams the small island where Mika and other principals live. The bear even breaks into a storage room and steals food. Do the adults warn Nika to be careful? Not that I recall. Will the bear confront Nika, Khan, Uncle Ian or anyone else important to the story. No. What is the point of the bear? And there are a few other loose ends.


SUMMER OF THE WOLVES is notable for its two good interwoven plots. It teaches a lot about wolves and why once they interact with humans, they cannot survive in the wild. But most of the characters are flat and often boring.



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More Summer of the Wolves reviews
Quick Tip by . May 09, 2012
A children's book adults will love to read themselves. Hopeful but realistic. I agree with Kikus: "A little gem of a book for wild-hearted lovers of the natural world."
About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #94
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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Children's book about an orphaned 12-year old girl's summer visiting wildlife specialist uncle among wolves in northern Minnesota
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