I read “The Bear” in about three hours, but it felt more as though I were listening to the voice of an elder telling me a story of the simple truths of existence. At times the voice spoke in short sentences, simultaneously detached and compassionate, telling of things that happened or what one person said to the other. As often, long sentences rolled on, building in fullness as they described the strength and power of the natural world. The story was of love, loss, vulnerability, resiliency, and connectedness. Ultimately, it told of the cycles of life, that of humankind, which ends, and of the natural world, which endures.
Author Andrew Krivak. (Courtesy photo)
“The Bear” defies categorizing—it has elements of parable and fable, but it lacks the didactic tone and obvious moral of those genres. For characters, there are two humans—“the man” and “the girl.” The father tells his daughter that he was told of a time when there were many people, but he knew of none besides his father, his wife, and her parents. The man and girl could be archetypes, but they are too warm and real. The man watches his daughter grow from an infant to age 12, and he teaches her practical survival skills, but also how to face fear and how to comprehend and survive the loss of her mother. She understands that he has taught her everything she will need for when she is left alone. He tells her tales of a time and place when animals and men talked with one another, and a bear and a puma each helped a group of people to survive.
(Photo by Jen Manell)
The setting is a house in the shadow of “the mountain that stands alone” on a small lake, surrounded by forest. For many years the girl and her father remain close to home, the passing years marked by an annual trip at the summer solstice to the top of the mountain where the father has buried the bones and ashes of his wife. Then, when the girl is 12, they make a several days’ journey to the ocean to get salt with which to cure the game they will kill that fall. The father has been there before. He takes them past a place where walls are partially buried in the earth and shards of glass glint among the grasses. The girl is left alone as her father descends into a gully in pursuit of something he has glimpsed down there. They reach the ocean where “the surface stretched as far as a horizon almost indistinguishable from the water’s silvery blue so that it looked to the girl as though sea and sky curved up and over to cover the earth like a dome.”
The girl must make her way back home to fulfill a promise. She has guidance from a compass and another being, who helps her find food, reminds her of all the skills her father taught her, and tells her that people remain for us: “In the time and place of memory. In the slant of light on a lakeshore. In the silence between footfalls along a path.”
It is winter by now, and they can go no farther until the spring. For months the girl survives in the wilderness, making a new bow to shoot deer and rigging a snare for rabbits. She eats plants, nuts, and bark. Food and firewood are scarce; she is always cold. And once she is rescued from death.
The repetitious details of the girl’s survival through the winter months may become somewhat tedious, but they seem necessary to convey both the harshness and the beneficence of nature and to show the resilience of the girl. Some elements may sound fantastical—and, indeed, they may not be “real”—but they seem very true to both a major theme and the style of the book.
What struck me most about the book was its emotional impact. While short in length and simple in plot, the book nevertheless felt immense in its truths. I was totally engaged throughout and felt deeply both the grief of many losses and the comfort of the ongoing cycles of nature.
If “The Bear” can be seen as a kind of parable or fable, is it perhaps a warning to humans about our lack of caring for nature, about the consequences of our failure to learn the connectedness of all things?
Editor’s Note: The author of “The Bear,” Andrew Krivak, was to have read from his book April 26 at Fivesparks in celebration of Earth Day and also Arbor Day. Nicky Schmidt, executive director of Fivesparks wrote, “We will have him there as soon as we reopen.”
Purchase “The Bear” online from West Acton’s Silver Unicorn Bookstore, www.silverunicornbooks.com.
The store currently offers free delivery to Harvard.