The Last Bear, Hannah Gold’s debut novel for children is a warm, gentle love story which celebrates the deep, intuitive relationships that can be forged between humans and animals.
April Wood lives with her widowed father, a scientist with a specialism in measuring weather patterns and climate change. When a letter arrives offering him a research post on Bear Island, an isolated island in the Arctic Circle between Norway and Svalbard. He jumps at the chance telling April that she can join him on the adventure.
‘April,’ he said, leaning forward. ‘Six months in the Arctic will teach you more than six months at school ever will.’
She took a second look at him. His eyes were bright and there were two pink spots of colour on his cheeks, The felling fizzed through her again.
‘When do we go?’
April is filled with excitement and expectation. Does this mean her father will have more time to spend with her and will she get to see polar bears? Her hopes are dashed when she is told that bears haven’t lived on Bear Island for many, many years. And she soon discovers that her father’s work schedule leaves no time for snowy adventures together.
Left to amuse herself, magical things start to happen when she encounters an injured polar bear, caught in the plastic waste that has drifted ashore. The story tells how bear and girl learn to trust each other and how April communicates in the special instinctive ways that some people have with animals.
The trope of the special relationship between a girl and polar bear extends from a tradition that reaches back to the Norwegian fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon to the more recent reworking in Edith Pattou’s North Child and of course Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. There’s something compelling about the vulnerability of the child and the imposing but tender bear. It seems to me that the bear in this story is the counterweight for the father possessing the qualities that April longs for in him, attentiveness, playfulness, an outward expression of love. In this respect, the story might put you in mind of Anthony Browne’s Gorilla, where a toy gorilla that comes to life fulfils the same function.
Mention must be made of Levi Pinfold’s stunning illustrations. Not as an afterthought but as integral to the storytelling. As with his previous illustrated fiction, The Song from Somewhere Else and The Secret Horses of Briar Hill, Pinfold adds atmosphere through his landscapes and emotional depth through his depiction of character. Tribute should be paid to the designer too as the placing of pictures through the text aids the flow of the narrative. It was a wise choice to have suggestive rather than detailed chapter headings which also maintain the seamlessness in the storytelling.
Hannah Gold proves that she is adept at conveying emotion, whether it is the delightful way in which she describes April’s feelings, or her father’s complex emotions, conveyed through gesture, action and the things left unsaid, or the bear’s body language.
A climate action message is threaded through the story: it is the melting of the polar ice cap that has led to bear being stranded on Bear Island and the impact of plastic waste compounds the threat to his existence. Neither is dealt with in a heavy-handed way, but through the feeling the story engenders for the main characters, readers will be given a reason to care about these things. In the classroom, this is an opportunity for a positive rather than catastrophising discussion. As April reminds the adults in the story, ‘it’s all our responsibility’ to effect change in the ways that we can
This is a lovely debut that will appeal especially to children who love animal stories or enjoy a quieter, reflective read.
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