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Book Review: Bear by Marian Engel

October 12, 2021 2 comments
Photo of a physical book cover. The word BEAR in neon green font is on top of the coat of a bear with a woman's hand running through the fur.

Summary:
A librarian named Lou is called to a remote Canadian island to inventory the estate of a secretive Colonel whose most surprising secret is a bear who keeps her company–shocking company.

Review:
I don’t recall anymore how I heard about this book, but this is what I heard about it:

There’s this book that’s considered a Canadian classic where a librarian has sex with a bear.

Ok. I was left with questions. First, this sounds like erotica – how is it a classic? Second, as a trained librarian I immediately wondered if the librarian part was essential to the story. Third, does she really have sex with a bear? Then I became even more intrigued when I discovered I couldn’t get this book digitally but only in print AND it’s out of print in the US so it’s far cheaper to purchase it abroad and have it sent here. So, now that I got this book from the UK and read it (in one weekend), let me answer these questions for you.

First, I wouldn’t call this erotica. The point, in spite of the murmurings about it, is absolutely not about sex with a bear, whereas in erotica, the point is the sex. I in all honesty would say this is a book about burnout. Lou is an archivist who is in a rut. When the nameless Institute she works for sends her to this estate that has been left to them to inventory their materials, her time in nature and her experiences with the locals (yes, including Bear), reveals her massive burnout to her.

She wondered by what right she was there, and why she did what she did for a living. And who she was.

(pg 93)

Second, I would definitely say the librarian part is essential to the story. Librarianship is a feminized profession. This book was first published in 1976. It is an exploration of what it means to be a working woman and how the world views working women, even when our work is performed outside of the public’s eye (perhaps especially when our work is performed outside of the public’s eye). I also thought this book does an excellent job of showing how even though librarianship is a feminized profession, those in the positions of greatest power within libraries and archives are men. Lou’s boss is a man, and this is relevant to her negative work experience.

Third, does she actually have sex with a bear? Ok, slight spoiler warning here. There is no penetration. She tricks the bear to go down on her. That’s it. I didn’t find it particularly shocking, but I’m a millennial from the internet generation that grew up with the internet urban legend about the woman with the dog and the peanut butter so. I viewed the transgressive act with Bear as serving two purposes. First, Lou has a tendency toward self-sabotage, self-loathing, and self-punishment. I think transgressing in this way makes her see how she’s transgressing against herself and her own soul in other ways and makes her refind her own sense of self. Second, I think it’s important to note that at the beginning of the book an Indigenous woman named Lucy kind of hands off the caretaking of Bear to Lou. At the end of the book, she hands the caretaking back to Lucy. I view this as an acknowledgement that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. It doesn’t mean it’s your life calling. There are other interesting takes on this as a commentary on colonialism, which I also think are valid.

So do I see why this is a Canadian classic? Yes, absolutely. The whole story oozes Canada from the juxtaposition of the wilderness with the city to the entwining of European and local history to the acknowledgment of the realness and relevance of local Indigenous peoples. (These peoples are not of the past but are of the present, something I think Canadian literature often does a better job with than US literature).

I thought I was going to read this book and laugh at it, kind of like how folks on book-tok are laughing about the ice planet barbarians right now. Instead, I found a unique story about a woman’s time in the semi-wilderness and how it makes her confront her burnout and how her career is a poor fit for her. How her life setup is causing her to transgress and how that needs to change. A shocking way to get the point across? Perhaps. But an important point nonetheless.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 167 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Purchased

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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