Jean Craighead George wrote many books about nature and protecting the environment. I recently reread The Talking Earth, which is about a young Seminole girl name Billie Wind who spends 3 months on her own in the Everglades. When Billie Wind says that she doesn’t believe the legends of her people, she’s sent to spend a night on an island to commune with nature. She’s trapped by a wildfire, discovers artifacts from her ancestors, and befriends a young otter. After those eventful first days, she decides that she will explore the Everglades until she can understand what the animals are saying to her.
Along the way, she also befriends a panther cub, a turtle, and eventually a boy about her age. Together they survive a hurricane before Billie Wind returns to her people, having learned that the animals have much to tell us about the Earth, if we only take the time to listen. Although she may not literally believe the legends of talking animal gods and a great serpent that punishes people, she can see the truth contained in those legends and she agrees that animals can talk to us in their way.
Note: I met Jean Craighead George several times. First 17 years ago with my younger cousin whose favorite book at the time was Julie of the Wolves. Then again about 11 years ago, and I have a picture of her holding my then-infant daughter and several books she signed for us. Meeting her was a delight—my memories of her are warm and comforting.
Jean Craighead George died on May 15, 2012 at the age of 92, so I’ve been inspired to reread some of her books.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Violence & Tension
Billie Wind and her animal companions are carnivores, so there’s a good bit of killing animals to eat them. It’s not graphic or gratuitous, but it is very practical and unsentimental. Billie Wind occasionally talks to the animals as she hunts them, illustrating everyone’s role in the circle of life. At one point she asks forgiveness of a muskrat when she kills it—this seems to be a mammal thing, for she doesn’t do the same with fish or frogs.
There are several scary moments—Billie Wind survives a wildfire, panthers, alligators, and a hurricane—but the story stays practical, informative, and contemplative. Billie Wind is trying to learn and solve her problems, so the tension isn’t ramped up artificially.
Knowledge & Information
It’s obvious the author did a lot of research to write this book. Anyone interested in the history, geography, and wildlife of the Everglades will find fascinating stuff in this book. There’s stuff about the ancestors of the Seminoles, including their way of life and their legends. In many ways it’s a non-fiction book with a plot and a pro-conservation agenda.
Billie Wind is afraid that people are going to destroy the world (the book was written in 1983, when many kids’ worst nightmares were about nuclear bombs). Her father works at the Space Center and Billie Wind has gone to school there. She imagines that we must start looking for a new planet to live on, because it’s just a matter of time before we blow up this one or make it otherwise uninhabitable. And honestly, she’s kind of excited about this idea. In the end, though, she realizes that people may learn to adapt to a new environment, but the animals won’t. It’s up to use to protect the Earth so the animals have someplace to live.
The wildfire is terrifying because as white people have inhabited more of the Everglades, they’ve started putting out the fires that used to happen naturally. This allowed the underbrush to grow up, and now when there is a fire it’s much hotter and truly devastating, as opposed to the life-renewing fires that were part of the cycle.
Since the book is called The Talking Earth, it shouldn’t be shocking that the primary focus of the story is on learning to be in touch with the natural world around you. This theme runs strongly throughout the book.
Billie Wind is a Seminole, which is very much a part of her identity. Although her father works at the Space Center and she’s gone to school there, most of the book is about her really getting back in touch with her ancestors and her environment. About mid-way through the book, she begins to fear the civilization of the white people more than the alligators and the panthers—like her, the animals belong in the swamp and are part of it; the technology of the white people messes everything up.
There seems to be a focus on women being the heads of households. Billie Wind looks up to her mother as clever and practical. It’s her uncle who is more mystical. In the end she comes to appreciate both—she has a renewed understanding of her uncle, but she’s always grateful for her mother’s practicality and ability to look ahead. Billie Wind herself is clever and practical, and even as she opens herself up to listening to nature, she doesn’t give up that aspect of herself.
Billie Wind discovers some artifacts from ancient people. She also finds camps and so on from people who were there before her. She looks at the clues to try to piece together who was here and what happened to them. She remembers stories that people have told her, and those stories contradict; however, this is dealt with matter-of-factly—because no one can truly know what happened, these are different hypothesis about how the people came to be here.
Although she has mostly looked to the future, when Billie Wind finds the artifacts, she’s excited to be linked to the past. She’s eager to bring her uncle to the island to see what she found. However, the day after she leaves the island, she sees bulldozers destroying it. Everything they might have learned from that site is being turned into an airport.
This is a great book for kids who love nature or American history or who are more attracted to nonfiction than fiction. I found it a little slow moving, honestly, but I also have to admit that I tend to read for story more than information. Survival stories aren’t a preferred genre for me, either. Although the protagonist is a girl, this book would appeal equally to boys or girls—the protagonist is a kid who just happens to be a girl; she could just as easily be a boy. It’s a thought-provoking read on a level that most kids ages 9 and up could easily understand. It’s a good book for precocious readers.
The Talking Earth by Jean Craighead George
Published in 1983 by HarperCollins
Read my personal (and autographed!) copy