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Ood-Le-Uk the Wanderer by Alice Alison and…
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Published in 1930, and chosen as a Newbery Honor Book in 1931 - other titles selected that year include Floating Island, The Dark Star Of Itza, Queer Person, Mountains Are Free, Spice and the Devil's Cave, Meggy MacIntosh: A Highland Girl in the Carolina Colony, and Garram the Hunter - this coming-of-age novel chronicles the adventures of its eponymous hero, a young Eskimo boy who finds himself accidentally embarking on a voyage to Siberia, where he encounters peoples and places he could never have imagined. The son of Katok the Chief, Ood-Le-Uk, an imaginative young soul more interested in creating (be it stories, or wooden carvings), than in hunting and killing, struggles with the fear that he thinks inappropriate in a leader's son. A strange talisman in the shape of a cross, that he finds washed up on the shores near his home, brings him comfort and gives him courage - something he will need when a seal hunt goes disastrously wrong, and he finds himself adrift in the icy seas. Eventually finding himself in a far strange land, he must survive a brutal winter on his own, and, having found a tribe of people known as the Tschuktschi (Chukchi), must adapt to new ways of living and hunting. Exciting experiences - being adopted into the family of Valetka the Kamakai (village chief), and becoming friends and brothers with his son, Etel; almost finding himself sacrificed to the old gods of the Tschuktschi by Ir-Kaij the shaman; defending the reindeer herds from ravenous wolf packs; traveling to the trading fair at Ostrownoje, where he meets Russians, Jukahires, Lamutes, Tungusi, Tschuwanzi, and Koriaks, and learns more of the strange cross symbol that has protected him for so long - abound, and Ood-Le-Uk learns many new things... but will he ever see his home again?

Like many of these vintage Newbery titles that depict non-European peoples, Ood-Le-Uk the Wanderer was a mixed bag. On the one hand, the story itself was engaging, and I was quickly involved in the hero's experiences, and interested to see what would happen next. The general narrative of discovery, of a broadening world opening up before Ood-Le-Uk, was very satisfying, as was his happy homecoming, in which he returned to his people in triumph, bringing his newfound knowledge to them, and establishing trading relationships in his own part of the world, and further abroad; while the issue of survival, the hero's struggle to adapt to such a challenging environment, added great suspense and excitement to the story. The artwork, consisting of engraving style plates by Raymond Lufkin, was likewise appealing. Unfortunately, while this was a successful title on some levels, I found the "othering" of the subject by the narrator, the ways in which the native peoples of both Alaska and Siberia were exoticized, consistently distracting, and frequently disheartening. From overt examples, in which the narrator makes fantastically denigrating comments about the cultures in question - apparently imagination is "a thing Eskimos are not given to possessing," despite their rich traditions of myth, folklore, decorative art - to more subtle comments that make it plain that those depicted are being judged against European standards - why mention the small stature and "slanty" eyes of the Eskimos at all, if this tale is meant to be from Ood-Le-Uk's perspective? Having only ever met Eskimos, at the beginning of the story, their eyes would just be eyes to him, and their height nothing unusual - it quickly becomes apparent that this is a story that, although it is striving for authenticity, is told from the viewpoint of an outsider. It gets even worse when Christian beliefs are contrasted with the "demonic" shamanism (spelled "Schaminism," for some reason) of the Siberian natives. I know comparatively little of these beliefs, and cannot speak to the truth or falsehood of the claim that human sacrifice was carried out amongst the Chukchi, but the notion that the Russians (or any other colonizing power) were "civilized" in comparison to the native peoples they interacted with, as claimed here, can safely be discounted I think.

In short: although a fairly engaging story, one which depicts settings and cultures not often seen in children's literature - I don't think I've run across any other stories featuring native Siberians - Ood-Le-Uk the Wanderer is a title with significant problems (of tone, and possibly also of fact) in the way in which it depicts its hero, and the peoples with whom he interacts. I'd recommend it to Newbery completists like myself, of course, but as to young readers... I'd say that teachers and librarians should use caution, in recommending it, and should stand ready to have a conversation about some of its flaws. ( )
  AbigailAdams26 | Apr 12, 2013 |
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Ood-le-uk, an American Eskimo boy, accidentally gets across the Bering Strait when his boat is swept to sea. After three years of wandering in Asia and having many exciting adventures, Ood-le-uk returns home and is instrumental in helping establish trade between his tribe and Siberian tradesmen.
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