by Marian Engel
I think I should start things off by warning that this isn’t Claire Cameron’s The Bear, as people seem to immediately think when I bring up Engel’s book. No, this is that book that fell off of everyone’s radar in recent years, despite my understanding that it was at least somewhat controversial in the ’70s. The only reason I actually heard of it was when my friend showed me that infamous imgur page expressing that Canadians have to explain why a book about a woman having sex with a bear not only became a bestseller, but also won the Governor General’s that year. Looking a bit further, turns out two of the judges were Mordecai Richler and Alice Munro. Perhaps there’s more to this book than bestiality?
And there is. On the surface, Bear is about Lou, an archivist for an historical institute, tasked at cataloguing a collection located on a remote Northern Ontario island that was bequeathed to the institute. Thing is, the island comes with a bear, a bear that Lou is asked to feed and care for while there. She does it, and they start to bond, and … you know. But bear sex isn’t what Bear’s actually about: It’s a nuanced, allegorical exploration of sexual- and self-discovery.
The big trouble I hit on when reading a book like Bear is determining how deep the allegory actually goes, trying to decide how much I should be reading literally. Some things seem straightforward enough: The house, Pennarth, said to mean “bear’s head,” is structurally octagonal, designed to emulate the structure of the brain; in scouring “the mind’s” library––a Victorian library riddled with traditional opinions on men and women in society––she learns about herself and the men around her; the bear’s always lived in the shack out back (these thoughts have always been in the back of her mind); and it’s through the exploration with the bear, this love and sexuality, that she finds freedom from and power over the men in her life. But, was she actually on this island with this bear? Should I read deeply into the fact that Homer, her guide to the area, introduces her to the bear, but he warns her about taking it off its chain, or is it actually a man concerned that a wild animal could injure a woman? What about the centenarian Mrs. Leroy; how should I interpret her close relationship with the bear?
No matter how much I properly understood, the story was great. I strongly believe that Engel’s education and experience with the landscape of Canadian literature at the time gave her the ability to create something fresh. (Her M.A. thesis was entitled The Canadian Novel, 1921-1955.) For, it’s hard, if not impossible, to properly subvert literary themes without identifying and understanding them first. In the case of Bear, I think Aritha van Herk hit the nail on the head in the afterword of the edition I read: One of Engel’s greatest successes was breaking through the male/female dichotomy ever present in Canadian literature at the time, that a woman needed a man to come to an understanding of herself.