Originally Published: July 25, 2014 6 a.m.
As the story opens Toozak, a young Eskimo paddling near his village, is privileged to see a whale being born. He notices a mark on the whale's chin that "looked like an Eskimo man dancing." The whale and the boy look into each other's eyes and a bond is formed. Years later, Yankee whalers come and trick Toozak into revealing where his Yup'ik people find whales. Because of his mistake the village shaman tells Toozak "you must protect that whale whose birth you witnessed as long as he lives."
Since the whales live longer than humans this obligation is passed on to his descendants by oral tradition. The whale, Siku, is recognized by the unusual mark on his chin and the tale traces his encounters with the Toozak family over time.
The book spans 200 years beginning in 1848 and ending in 2048, the possible lifespan of a bowhead whale. This allows the story to encompass the beginning of commercial whaling in the Arctic Ocean, which nearly drove the bowhead whale into extinction. The native people also hunt whales, but take "only what they need." The commercial whalers "kill them for money" so their is without limit.
Now, the whales are protected by the Endangered Species Act and their populations are recovering. In centuries past some of my ancestors from the Frisian Islands were whalers in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Greenland. The vision of Jean Craighead George extends into the future to a time when the descendants of Yankee whalers and the descendants of native subsistence hunters blend elements of both cultures into a more sustainable life.
Jean Craighead George wrote more than 100 books for young people, including the Newbery award-winning Julie of the Wolves and My Side of the Mountain (which featured a boy and a peregrine falcon). She incorporated research by her son, biologist Craig George, into this novel for young readers, which she was writing when she died in May of 2012. Her daughter, Twig George, and son collaborated in completing their mother's manuscript.
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