“And there will be many challenges in your life, Thea Whittington. We all have to find out what matters and how to bring ourselves close to them.” (The Good Bear by Sarah Lean, Simon & Schuster, 2020)
If you are looking for a heartwarming winter read, look no further than The Good Bear by Sarah Lean, set over one Christmas holiday in the life of young Thea Whittington, who is not looking forward to spending the celebrations with her Dad and his new family in a bitterly cold and remote part of Norway.
Despite her reservations about being parted from her mother for the first Christmas since her parents separated, she remains keen to rekindle memories of holidays spent with her father. This desire, however, comes at the expense of spending any quality time getting to know his new family.
She pins all of her relationship hopes with her father on a birthday present – a typewriter – that he ends up not buying for her, casting a dark shadow over how she hoped the Christmas period would work-out. So fixated does she become on this one item, that she neglects to be grateful to the efforts his family have put towards finding her suitable clothing for the Norway winter. Thea, instead, seeks solace at an antiques store in the town where she finds a vintage typewriter that the store owner allows her to borrow to kick-start her aspirations of being a writer.
It is only when Thea encounters a bear, hungry, alone, and running from a life of cruelty, does she come to untangle her emotional difficulties with her father and focus on something much bigger (figuratively and literally) than herself and in much more need of help. It is by spending time with the bear, who is under threat from hunters, does she understand that emotion will get you so far, but ultimately action is what is needed in order to solve any problem.
This is not the tale of an ordinary girl who has to be the hero to save the day, however; Thea is cruel and disrespectful to her father’s new family, but she is fortunate to have people around her who genuinely care for her and are willing to be patient. The bear opens her eyes to the powers of simple observation, to really see what is front of you before placing your own thoughts and values on it. If she had done this sooner, she would have realised that her ‘new family’ were not neglectful of her and that they had their own family Christmas traditions that were not absent, as she assumed, but simply different to hers.
Most importantly, Thea learns that the things she most wished for, the typewriter for example, are not perhaps the things she most needs. Would she have found her story if her father had given her the typewriter, instead of the coat and boots? Or is it that the coat and boots lead her to the bear, thus giving her a story to write about? She wants the typewriter, but without the boots and coat she would not have been able to explore the woods that revealed the bear that she needs for her story to take flight. Henry, her father, may not also be the father she wished for, but not just because he is emotionally distant, but because she won’t accept him for who he is – a person she actually ends-up needing in order to save the life of the bear.
One of the key things that Thea is searching for is honesty, but she wants her own truth, not that of others it seems, and so when she meets the bear, who has experienced a trauma she could never imagine, she starts to open herself up to seeing the honest representation of others. She appreciates the antiques store owner, V, for who she is – heavy make-up, wigs, and glamorous clothes – because she is very open about who is she and admits that much of her actions are influenced by how much she misses her mother and her desire to keep her memory alive. V makes no apology for this and yet when Thea’s father acts in the way that he does – quiet and reclusive – and offers no apology Thea can’t accept it, because it does not fulfill her own emotional image of who he should be to her.
Thea can only really see her father’s ‘truth’, when she stops being so entangled in her own, and the divisions she thought were there between herself and his family are partly in her own head rather than in reality. Ultimately she needs them all to save the bear, she can’t act alone as she has been since her arrival in Norway. The bear is alone, but Thea is not, and by seeing this bigger picture, she can help the bear survive and bring him the comfort he needs.
The reader is able to understand these complex emotions through the eyes of a much older Thea, retelling the story of the bear to her daughter. It is perhaps with this adult reflection that we, as readers, can appreciate Thea’s situation more fully, but it also casts some doubt on the story too. Is the bear simply a metaphor to help Thea explain her epiphany as a child to her own daughter, or was the bear real? We are left hanging on this point, but like Thea’s daughter, as a reader you dearly want the bear to be real and not just an invention by the now talented writer that Thea has become.
A story of family, acceptance and togetherness, it has all the hallmarks of becoming a classic fairytale, and Sarah Lean admits to fairytales being one of her most enduring childhood reads. We have all the identifying characteristics of a fairytale in the shape of the step-mother (who turns out not to be cold or dismissive); the unwanted siblings (who actually do want Thea to join in with them); a huntsman (who can’t bring himself to be a hero); and a monster (a misunderstood creature in need of help). And of course Thea, who has ideas of being her father’s princess, but who ends-up being more his equal instead.
An honest look at hopes, fears, mistakes and disappointments, this story will certainly linger in your thoughts long after you have put the book down, and like Thea’s daughter, you will want to revisit the story of Thea and bear every winter.
Recommended for readers aged nine and upwards.
The Good Bear by Sarah Lean, Simon & Schuster, 2020