Book Review: The Last Bear

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.

Book Review: A Woman in the Polar Night

A Woman in the Polar Night, by Christiane Ritter (translated by Jane Degras), is a memoir of the author’s year spent living with her husband, Hermann, and another hunter, Karl Nicholaisen, in a small hut on the coast of Grey Hook. This is a barren, stony flatland sticking out into the Arctic Ocean between Woodfjord and Wijdefjord on the north coast of Spitsbergen. Hermann often spent months in this part of the world where he would trap foxes and bears for food and the animal’s valuable pelts. Christiane joined him in the summer of 1934, just as Hitler was consolidating his power in Germany. Experiencing life in the Arctic changed her views on European values and concerns. The daily struggle to stay alive and the need to work with nature had a profound impact on the wealthy Austrian housewife who had left her teenage daughter behind to partake in this adventure.

The story opens with some background. Hermann had previously spent three winters in the Arctic as a trapper, gathering scientific information on the region. In letters and other written correspondence he encouraged his wife to join him, promising her a boudoir in the hut he would take in Spitsbergen. Eventually Hermann’s diaries persuaded Christiane that she could spend a comfortable and interesting winter relaxing, reading books and admiring the landscape. She set out on a ship from Hamburg with more luggage than Hermann had advised.

Arriving in the Arctic Christianne is met by her husband and they continue their journey on a small steamer. Also on board is Karl. The author learns for the first time that he will be living with them.

“We shake hands and smile at each other. We cannot do any more because Karl does not speak German and I do not speak Norwegian.”

Twenty-four hours later they arrive at Grey Hook and disembark. The hut they will be staying in is tiny but Karl and Hermann are delighted with it. A small ante-room leads to the interior containing bunks, a table and a damaged, smoky stove. The promised boudoir has not yet been built.

“I had imagined Spitsbergen otherwise.”

“I have to put it to myself as a hard geographical fact, how alone we are up here. Nobody as far as the north pole, nobody across the sea until Novaya Zemlya, and nobody for three hundred miles southward…”

The following year is covered in journal style, written mainly in the present tense. Thus the reader experiences the evolving situation as events occur. With no choice but to accept what she has taken on, Christiane observes her husband’s behaviour – so different to how he acts when at his family estate in Austria.

“I am amazed at my husband who seems to have quite forgotten how a European woman is accustomed to live. He seems to take it completely for granted that I will feel quite at home in this wretched hut, with beasts of prey for company. Anyhow, his way of introducing me to the wilderness does not seem very considerate.”

As well as contending with the beast of a smoky stove, Christiane must spend periods alone while the men go off to hunt. It is on one such occasion that she experiences her first Arctic storm and the hut is buried under snow. The elemental dangers and severely limited food supplies are recurring challenges. Added to these is the need to cope psychologically. The men have developed a stoicism that Christiane must cultivate. She has heard tales of women who have lost their minds in such circumstances and Karl fully expects her to be similarly afflicted.

As the never ending summer daylight leaves them, and the constant darkness of the winter months descends, Christiane must find routines to keep her from despair. Gradually she comes to appreciate the attraction of the region – its terrible beauty and man’s insignificance. Anxieties revolve around basic survival. It is only the essentials for life that have true value.

“Humanity has lost itself in the unnatural and in speculation. Only now do I grasp the real meaning and the world-transforming element in the saying: “Become as the peasants, understand the sacredness of the earth.”

The author writes of the cold, the soot from the stove, the lack of meat and other food supplies. She must learn to deal with damp sleeping bags, mildewed bedding and the necessary mending of worn out clothes. Christiane’s day to day role is as housewife, although she writes movingly of the bleak landscape that she eventually comes to appreciate. This is fine travel writing and nature writing as well as memoir.

As an explanation of why anyone would choose to live in the Arctic I remain perplexed. If man’s place in nature is understood by the author and the hunters then why can’t they leave the native creatures they encounter alone in their environment? Why stay?

Occasional artistic pencil sketches add to the imagery of the prose, although the polar bear depiction is distressing if evocative. The book is concluded with photographs taken of Hermann and Christiane and the hut at Grey Hook that brings home how basic it was.

 

An interesting and well written memoir that vividly portrays life in an extreme and inhospitable place. Despite being baffled as to why anyone would choose such a risky and invasive lifestyle, the tale enables the reader to appreciate how beautiful and balanced anywhere could be – if left to nature.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Dark Matter

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Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver, is a deliciously disturbing story of a 1930s arctic expedition that pitted rational man against isolation, darkness and the supernatural. Presented in the form of a journal it offers an insight into the effects of anxiety over time, and how the mind cannot always be controlled.

When the story opens, Jack Miller, a grammar school boy with a London degree, has just met with the wealthy and titled Oxbridge educated quartet who have gained funding for a year long scientific research trip to a remote arctic island between Norway and the North Pole. They require a communications expert and have been told that Jack may be their man. Intimidated by their privilege and familiarity, Jack struggles to believe he could fit in. However, his life in London is such that he is desparate for change.

Six months later he has resigned from his job, not without some misgivings, and sets off as an accepted member of the team. The excitement of the undertaking carries them all through the journey and the setting up of their camp. Rotas are agreed and a routine established as the days shorten towards what, in this part of the world, will be four months of darkness cut off from the world by a frozen sea.

The skipper of the boat which provided their transport had been reluctant to take them to their chosen base. He had talked of it being a place that made bad things happen. The scientists refuse to accept such an irrational opinion, but a seed of doubt has been sown. By the time the boat leaves events have conspired to shrink the team to three. Jack has also experienced moments of sudden fear that he cannot explain.

Before the long winter truly closes in around the group, illness hits and Jack is left to cope on his own. Amidst the relentless darkness and isolation he must also deal with the prescence of a terrifying spectral being whose existence he was loath to admit but which he can no longer deny.

The stark beauty of the frozen wilderness becomes a threat. Jack does his best to continue the work the team was funded to undertake but his mind is battling with a fear he cannot rationally explain. Reluctant to appear foolish, and eager to retain the admiration of his team leader, he denies that anything is wrong when he communicates with the outside world. Alone he struggles to maintain any semblance of a normal existence.

The author brilliantly evokes the irrationality of certain fears and the very real impact they can have. The reader feels the cold seeping in under doors, and listens with trepidation for unexplained footfall or the breathing of someone who cannot be there.

With new scientific discoveries being made all the time, how much is really known about the world in which we live? This is a ghost story of the highest order.