This isn't your average camping trip – that much is for sure. Our girl begins the story completely lost in one of the most frightening landscapes on earth:
She had been lost without food for many sleeps on the North Slope of Alaska. The barren slope stretches for three hundred miles from the Brooks Ranger to the Arctic Ocean, and for than eight hundred miles from the Chukchi to the Beaufort Sea. No roads cross it; ponds and lakes freckle its immensity. Winds scream across it, and the view in every direction is exactly the same. (1.2)
We certainly do not envy Miyax's predicament. It's freezing out there, and this is a place where one tiny mistake, like, say running off in search of food (1.102-104), or having damp clothes (1.89) can mean death. Plus the tundra is almost eerie in its emptiness. Imagine looking in every direction and having your view never change. What would you do? Which way would you turn? How do you keep from going insane, for Pete's sake?
Part of what makes this setting so unique is that Miyax is the only one in it. For much of the book, there's not a human in sight. Nevertheless, the tundra is rich with life, and Miyax sees it all: caribou, birds, lichen, mosses, insects, foxes, even wolverines. In fact, the tundra is actually quite crowded, just not in your typical sense of the word.
It's beautiful, too, which our narrator is sure to point out in descriptions like this one: "[The tundra was] a glistening gold, and its shadows were purple and blue. Lemon-yellow clouds sailed a green sky and every wind-tossed sedge was a silver thread" (3.54). And that's in winter, we'd like to point out, when it's below zero and everything's completely smothered with snow.
In fact, the tundra is so beautiful in all seasons, and so teeming with hidden resources, that Miyax decides to stick it out. She knows something all those people in the planes flying over the North Slope don't, something the old Eskimos knew: the tundra can be an awesome home.
But what good is the tundra without something to compare it to? To show just how lovely the tundra is by comparison, George gives us a glimpse of some Alaskan towns, and for the most part, the view isn't great.
First, there's Mekoryuk, the town in which little Julie lives with her Aunt Martha for a time. It's a "snowy town" (2.44), where "the girls her age could speak and write English and they knew the names of presidents" (2.43). While she's there, Julie "worked at the hospital on weekends. After school she cut out dresses in the domestic science room and sewed them on the electric machines. She bobbed her hair and put it in rollers to make the ends curl" (2.49). Sounds nice enough, we guess.
Mekoryuk is a place where Julie clearly feels the pressures of civilization, and her response, at first, is to try to fit in. In town, people are knowledgeable about the world, and this gives Julie her first taste of just how much further along the outside world is.
But even Mekoryuk is behind the times: "The Eskimo children of the more prosperous families were sent to the mainland for further schooling," because "Mekoryuk had no high school" (2.58). Julie's desire to become even more educated and worldly sends her to Barrow, an even more developed town than Mekoryuk.
Compared to Mekoryuk, Barrow is downright cosmopolitan. Evidence of technology and civilization are everywhere. Even before Julie lands, she sees "the towers of the Distant Early Warning system that marked the presence of the military in Barrow" (2.72), and on the way from the airport to her new home, "She looked at the little houses surrounded by boats, oil drums, tires, buckets, broken cars, and rags and bags" (2.77). Barrow doesn't seem like a beautiful paradise, that's for sure.
And finally we have Kangik, the town where, at the end of the book, Miyax discovers her father has been living. We don't know much about Kangik itself, but from the way Miyax imagines it, it sounds like the perfect cross between the tundra and town. There, she plans to live with her father, and "they would live as they were meant to live – with the cold and the birds and the beasts" (3.229).
When we first see Kangik, we learn that "It consisted of about fifty wooden houses. A few were large, but all had the same rectangular design with peaked roof." Sounds pretty good so far. But really, we're viewing the town through Miyax's optimistic eyes, and the narrator is quick to point out that "Kangik was so snowy she could not see if there was trash in the streets, but even if there had been she would not have cared. Kapugen's home had to be beautiful." (3.233).
Upon closer look, Miyax sees that "Dog teams barked from both ends of town, and although she knew there were snowmobiles, the village was essentially a sled-dog town – an old-fashioned Eskimo settlement. That pleased her" (3.234). Miyax thinks she has got it made, and why shouldn't she? Kangik seems like an ideal balance between traditional Eskimo life and living off the land, as Miyax believes Eskimos are meant to do.
Unfortunately, she later learns that Kangik has slanted more towards civilization than she would like. Kapugen's house has "electric lamps, a radio-phonograph, cotton curtains, […] an electric stove, a coffee pot, and china dishes" (3.258).
So if Kangik doesn't strike the proper balance between tundra and town, what does? If you think back to all the places Miyax has visited or lived over the course of her life, one place pops out as an ideal location for our girl to live the kind of life she wants to: the seal camp. When Miyax remembers the seal camp, "the scenes and events were beautiful color spots in her memory" (2.6).
It's at seal camp that she first experiences Eskimo culture, in the form of the Bladder Feast, i'noGo tieds, and hunting with her father. Despite summers, when it would fill with Eskimos from nearby Mekoryuk, the seal camp is an authentic place, particularly in winter, when "Blizzards came and the temperatures dropped to thirty and forty below zero, and those who stayed at hunting camp spoke only in Eskimo and did only Eskimo things" (2.26).
But Miyax leaves seal camp for town, and town for the tundra, and the tundra for town again. Gosh, will this girl ever settle down? When we think back over the various settings of the book, we can't help but worry that perhaps Miyax (and Julie) will never fit in anywhere. She's trapped between two worlds, and we're not too sure those two worlds can coexist.