Packaging Boyhood Redux: Brian vs. Julie

I ended up reading Hatchet and Julie of the Wolves nearly back to back this semester, and it made for some really striking contrasts.  While both are are about surviving on one’s own in the wilderness, Brian and Julie approach their similar predicaments in very different ways.

Hatchet reminded me of all the Jack London “man vs. nature” stories that I had a hard time getting into as a kid, in part because the protagonists’ relationship with nature was adversarial and the emotional lives of the characters was often only barely alluded to.  Paulson’s adventure story is not quite that stark; Brian’s parents are mentioned several times and emotions like fear play a huge part in the story.  At the same time, considering how difficult a time Brian is having dealing with his mother at home, and how much he is avoiding the interpersonal conflict that has torn his world upside down, you could even argue that crashing on that mountain was as much wish-fulfillment as it was a dangerous plot twist.
Then we have Julie, who doesn’t rely on a twist of fate to save her from sticky interpersonal conflict, but heads out for the wilderness of her own accord.  Once there, she doesn’t fight with nature, even though her landscape is clearly much more dangerous than Brian’s, instead she makes friends with a wolf pack and convinces them to care for her.  In the end, what Julie of the Wolves reminded me most strongly of is A Little Princess, in which Sarah Crew’s idyllic world is turned upside down first through nothing more than the virtue of her growing older, and then by the death of her father.  Much the same way that Julie is forced to leave behind the old ways, first through the death of her father and then as a result of the progress of civilization.  Even more, the climax of each story involves not only heroism on the part of our protagonists, but also someone else coming to the conclusion that she is family and deserves protection.

 

Despite being so different, I enjoyed both stories a lot; I’m glad I read both of them and I will recommend both to all kinds of tweens.  I just really wish that it wasn’t always Brian that was avoiding emotional conflict and Julie that was willing to reach out and ask for help.  Although there is still more to be done, we’ve started making some really good progress showing girls that they can rely on themselves and don’t need to wait for others (just compare Julie to Sarah).  Boys, however, still seem to always be asked to be little Jack Londons*; told they are little men before they can even walk and, most of all, taught that vulnerability is not something that boys admit to.  It’s important that we have books like Hatchet; firstly because it is simply a good book, but secondly because it particularly speaks to the boys that have already internalized the idea of boyhood that we sell ourselves.  However, it’s just as important that we have examples of boyhood that are not so closely tied up in the myth of boy as an island and emotions as nothing more than weaknesses.

*The Jack London story that stuck with me the most was not any of the ones about the Alaska Gold Rush or the like, but a short story he wrote based on his own experiences as a child laborer at the twilight of the industrial revolution.  Like many oldest children at that time, Jack’s own childhood was sacrificed in favor of feeding his younger siblings.

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