‘The Bear’ takes a gentler approach to post-apocalyptic fiction

Wendy Smith

THE WASHINGTON POST – Most post-apocalyptic fiction takes place in a landscape poisoned by nuclear war or rendered savagely inhospitable by climate change. Andrew Krivak paints a gentler picture in his lyrical third novel, The Bear. An unnamed father and daughter are embedded in the rhythms of the natural world, their activities organised by the seasons.

The pair could belong to almost any period in preindustrial human history were it not for the memories the man shares and the “remains of what once was” that he shows the girl on a fateful journey from their mountainside home toward the ocean, shortly after she turns 12.

The man’s stories recall a slowly dwindling clan; his father “knew only your mother’s family. And they spoke only of mothers and fathers to their kin”. That generation looked for other people “their whole lives,” the father said.

“And when they were done looking, it was just me and your mother. So we didn’t look anymore.” Ruined building walls visible when the father was a boy are now completely covered by grass and weeds; glass for a window has been passed down through at least three generations, “so precious a thing had it become as the skill for making it was lost.”

Krivak’s gorgeous descriptions suggest a world that has returned to its proper equilibrium and rightful inhabitants: the animals and trees whose voices the girl discovers she can hear.

The Bear. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

“All living things spoke,” said the eponymous bear who rescues the girl when she suddenly finds herself alone and far from home. “It was the others like her who stopped listening,” Krivak wrote, “perhaps the real question was how she could understand him.”

In a wonder-tinged scene, the bear explains that animals “need [to speak] like they need air to breathe”; and so do trees, although they experience time on such a vast scale that they may take a month to utter a single word.

The trees are “companions to us all who forget nothing that happens in the forest beneath them,” said the bear.

“Each one carries the memory inside of every living thing that has ever touched it or passed beneath the shade of its limbs. … The wood you burn to cook your food and keep you warm? The smoke that rises was once a memory. The ashes all that is left of the story it belonged to.”

This unabashed plunge into the realm of fable and fairy tale might surprise those who know Krivak’s previous novels.

The Sojourn, a National Book Award finalist, and its follow-up, The Signal Flame, are directly concerned with the legacy of war and violence; The Bear deliberately is not. Yet The Bear shares with its predecessors a preoccupation with loss and endurance, themes explored here in a more mythic style still firmly grounded in physical reality. Any shadow of preciousness is quickly dispelled by the clarity of Krivak’s prose and the precision with which he delineates the girl’s struggles during a bitter winter when she is once again alone.

The bear promised to accompany her home, but it grew too cold to travel safely, and once he finds a sheltering cave, the need to hibernate overwhelmed him.

She must hunt for food and make warmer clothing for herself, relying on the skills learned from her father. Krivak reminds us of the extraordinary knowledge and discipline those skills require in detailed, virtually step-by-step accounts of tasks from making snowshoes to skinning a deer and harvesting its carcass for food. Depicting the drama of her daily efforts to survive, The Bear demonstrates its kinship with such classic coming-of-age-in-the-wild tales as My Side of the Mountain and Island of the Blue Dolphins. The novel’s closing pages return to the terrain of myth. The girl, now an old woman, “spoke to all of the living things of the earth”; she lives in complete harmony with nature, without any need for the relics of a dead civilisation that once intrigued her.

Stories about her are passed down by the animals, and when a young bear arrives at her home, dispatched to fulfil a promise, he felt “as though he had come to a place where the end and the beginning were the same”.

Krivak’s serene and contemplative novel invites us to consider a vision of time as circular, of existence as grand and eternal beyond the grasp of individuals – and of a world able to outlive human destructiveness.