The Last Bear, by Hannah Gold (illustrated by Levi Pinfold), is a magical tale about a lonely girl and her unusual friend. Set on Bear Island, an outpost between Norway and Svalbard inhabited only by wildlife and research scientists, it offers a warning about the impact of climate change wrapped around an exhilarating adventure, beautifully told.
The protagonist is April Wood, the eleven year old daughter of an academic still grieving the loss of his beloved wife seven years previously. April is happiest when alone with nature – in her back garden or on visits to her grandmother on the coast. She finds school a trial.
“April didn’t like school, or the girls at school didn’t like her. She didn’t know whether it was because she smelled of fox or the fact she was the smallest girl in her class or even that she cut her own hair with a pair of garden scissors. Either way, April didn’t mind too much because she preferred animals to humans anyway. They were just kinder.”
When April’s father is offered a six month position at a weather station in the Arctic Circle, his daughter is delighted. She imagines the fun they will have spending time together, sledging and exploring. Her father is often so wrapped up in his work he barely seems to notice she exists.
On the journey to Bear Island, April meets Tör, the ship captain’s son, who mentions that there are no longer any bears at her destination. However, three weeks after she arrives at the small cabin she and her father will call home for the arctic summer, she comes face to face with an injured and emaciated polar bear. She calls him Bear and sets about earning his trust.
Contrary to expectations, the important work her father is doing for the Norwegian Government takes up all of his time. April is therefore left to her own devices. She explores the island, slowly forming a bond with Bear. She intuits his backstory from the knowledge she can glean and the affinity she has developed with all wildlife. She determines to help Bear but must work out how.
The author has taken certain liberties with what would be reality to paint the island and April’s adventures there as an enchanting time. Throughout, however, tension builds to the almost unbearable climax. The reader will become invested in Bear’s prospects as April risks everything to try to offer him the chance of a less lonely life.
Such a story couldn’t work without the skill of the author in creating her fully formed characters with the lightest of exposition. April’s attitude, bravery and stoicism will appeal to children and adults alike. The young girl takes her disappointments and turns them into opportunities. Her observations of people and place bring them to life.
The author writes in her note at the end of her passion for the planet.
“how it needs our protection and how anyone, no matter how big or small, can inspire hope and create change”
Although weaving this into her story she succeeds in avoiding polemic. At its heart this is a tale of a lonely girl seeking love, finding it, and choosing to set it free despite the personal cost. It is an adventure crying out to be made into a dialogue free animated film, preferably harnessing the illustrator’s stunning pictures. I adored the story and recommend it to every reader, whatever their age.
The Last Bear is published by Harper Collins.
One of my books of the year!