March 30, 2020

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Rich, restless survival novel a stellar sanctuary

Set in a landscape inspired by southern New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock and its surroundings, Andrew Krivak’s third novel The Bear relates the tale of "[t]he last two… a girl and her father." At first glance this scenario seems particularly apt for these restless days of pandemic and climate crisis, yet the story itself feels, in many ways, like sanctuary.

Combining graceful prose, woodscraft know-how and appreciation of flora and fauna, Krivak immerses readers in a world known and not known where the days are full: depending on the season, the two fish, bow hunt, dry apples and sew skins into clothing, the father always carefully teaching his daughter to master these survival skills and many more.

He also teaches her to read from "tales recounted in old words of an old time on old pieces of paper." While she becomes an adept reader, the girl prefers her father’s stories, which often involve "a long journey taken, a triumph of great strength, or a treasure lost and found… Always they ended back in the small house, safe and warm around the hearth fire."

When the girl begins asking about the mother she can’t recall, her father confides, "even after all these years, years in which I’ve had you to think about every minute of every day, I still… miss her and wish she were here." Though her father knows loneliness, the girl is largely unacquainted with it.

Innocence, however, does not last, and her journey to experience begins when she is 12 and her father decides they should trek to the ocean to harvest salt. After an unexpected encounter, the girl’s sole companion is grief so heavy it threatens to crush her.

Enter the bear. The girl’s father once remarked of ursids that "they will travel a long way to do good, for their own or another," and so it proves. After feeding the girl, the bear informs her that he will escort her home and, despite her misgivings, they set out together.

While the girl and her father lived close to the land, she begins to live like the bear, "[t]heir language the steadiness of gait and the gathering of food." Under the bear’s tutelage the already abundant environment seems bursting with edibles, and Krivak’s knowledge of wild foods will have readers re-evaluating common plants.

The bear also teaches the girl about the inner lives of trees, the value of speech to all plants and animals, grief’s longevity, memory’s significance and the fact that the constellations they each use to orient themselves are entwined.

When the girl finally finishes her long journey, a triumph of great strength, she has only to build a fire on the hearth and reflect on treasures lost and found to fully realize one of her father’s stories. Instead, her notion of home has expanded and she lives accordingly.

At points reminiscent of Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, Eliot Wigginton’s Foxfire Series, Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Bear is a beautiful, gripping, thought-provoking exploration of human rewilding and nature’s dominion.

As a child, Jess Woolford passed many happy summer days near Mount Monadnock.

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