Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Notorious when it was first published in 1976, and notorious again today after a cover image (not this one) went viral, Bear by Marian Engel has just been reissued.

The novel feels much more substantial than one might expect from its 141 pages. The backstory covers several generations, rather like a mini-epic in the manner of Robertson Davies.

There are frequent literary and cultural references to bears, and the important semi-wilderness setting is captured deftly and without fuss.

The characters are few but indelible. The protagonist Lou is a book-sheltered woman who meets a likeable rustic named Homer, and an ancient native woman who offers this advice:

"Shit with the bear. He like you, then. Morning, you shit, he shit. Bear lives by smell. He like you."

Combine all these elements with perfect pacing and an aura of danger, and you'll have an idea of just how good this book is.


The story is a modern fairy tale with a feminist subtext. The men have iconic names reflecting their status as males: Colonel Cary, Joe King, and the Director.

Homer's name suggests his role as a folksy patriarch, but despite his helpfulness he's not much different from other men in Lou's life. The way she resolves an issue with him is a key aspect of the story.

The three most important female characters all have masculine names. In addition to Lou, there is Lucy Leroy the native woman, and in a particularly clever touch the daughter of Colonel Cary, her given name bestowed upon her at birth to circumvent a will. Thus, she is Colonel Jocelyn, a tough capable woman "with big hands like a man" who could skin a lynx.

The bear, on the other hand, has no name. But it too is male, and in a scene I thought particularly humorous, acts like a typical guy:  

She put honey on herself and whispered to him, but once the honey was gone he wandered off, farting and too soon satisfied.

The Cover

When Bear first came out in Canada, the hardcover's dust jacket was bland and the paperback's cover lurid.

In reissuing the book, the publisher came up with a different cover for the trade paperback, and in a clever publicity gimmick invited several artists to submit alternative designs. You can see them on the publisher's website.

For Canadian Notes & Queries, artist Joe Ollmann created an illustration in comic-book style. You can see the full page by clicking here or here.

Bear in Mind

Animals are fascinating, but their Disneyfication sometimes blinds people to their potentially dangerous nature. I myself have seen people do very stupid things, like feeding polar bears by hand at the Churchill dump.

People, don't be stupid.

If you want to get close to bears, do it by reading. Here are a couple of books that I recommend. In The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle, a bear named Hal Jam becomes a famous author. And in a dark fantasy called Shardik by Richard Adams (he of Watership Down fame), a bear is worshipped as a deity by a primitive society.