Book Review: Journey of the Pale Bear
Journey of the Pale Bear
By: Susan Fletcher
Reviewer: Uma Krishnaswami
Opening in Bergen, Norway, in the spring of 1252, this shimmering middle grade novel was inspired by the story of a real polar bear, once part of a royal menagerie at the Tower of London. There’s plenty of adventure on the seas and lashings of historical context—a heart-stopping pirate attack; the grit and grime of shipboard life; royal diplomacy, with the English king himself, Henry III, waiting for the gift that is on its way to him from King Haakon IV of Norway. The demands of kings and nobles lend urgency to the choices that the doctor and the ship’s captain must make, choices that land hard upon the shoulders of the boy chosen to take care of a terrifying animal that no one else can control. And so it is that the beating heart of Fletcher’s novel is the story of a relationship between boy and animal, both fearful, both longing for freedom. In some ways, the bear is the force of female energy in the story, a surrogate mother writ large in young Arthur’s imagination as he wonders if she yearns for a lost cub, the way he yearns for his own mother. Burnished prose and a deep sense of the child protagonist’s tender heart keep the story’s pages turning. The text pulls the reader close to the bear’s teeth and claws and anguish, raising questions about the animal world and our relationship to it. In that sense, as well as in its unsentimental depiction of a boy who is a pawn in the hands of grownups, this story from the past carries meaning for our world today. An author’s note provides additional information and insights into the creation of fiction out of historical curiosity.
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