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Bear (Nonpareil books) Paperback – March 1, 2003
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Bear is a strange and wonderful book, plausible as kitchens, but shapely as a folktale, and with the same disturbing resonance. --Margaret Atwood
About the Author
Marian Engel was born in Toronto, Ontario, in 1933. She grew up in the Ontario towns of Brantford, Galt, Hamilton, and Sarnia. She received her B.A. (1955) from McMaster University and her M.A. (1957) from McGill University, where she wrote her thesis, The Canadian Novel, 1921-55, under the supervision of Hugh MacLennan.
After living abroad and teaching in the United States and Europe, Engel returned to Canada in 1964 and settled in Toronto, which was to remain her home.
Her many novels and short stories explore the daily lives of her contemporaries, frequently reflecting upon the human condition from the perspective of women.
Engel was a founding member of the Writers Union of Canada and served as its first chairman in 1973-74.
Marian Engel died in Toronto in 1985.
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Bear is about Lou, a 27-year old librarian who goes to Colonel Cary's house on Cary's Island in order to document the library and anything else of interest there. She essentially lives on her own. There is Homer, the caretaker who occasionally visits. And Lucy, a first nations lady who lives on (or at least often visits) the island. Otherwise, Lou is alone. Save for the bear in the back cabin.
To me, the book is less about the sexual attraction Lou exhibits towards the bear and more about her loneliness. She is compared to a mole, constantly burrowing down into her books and work. The bear represents her darkest desires come to light. The book is about taboos. Lou exhibits different sexual taboos: sex with the boss, sex with a married man, and attempted sex with a bear. She quite literally can't hold the bear down. Every time she puts her fingers into its fur, they keep going deeper and deeper. Again, she is like a mole who is constantly digging for more darkness. More taboo.
She is horrified at the notes she finds in the books about bears in general. Bear in English etymologically means "the brown one" because of a taboo surrounding saying the true name of the beast. In the beginning, it is chained. It is untrusting. But Lou loosens the chains. She gains the trust of the bear. She literally brings her taboo from the darkness of the cabin into the light of the house. And once that happens, she can't stop until she's satisfied. Homer remarks that she smells like the bear. Secretly, she is happy about that.
Ultimately, however, the bear is a beast. She is not. At the time of the novel's initial release, she was probably a taboo in and of herself: an unmarried 27 year old woman with a liking for casual sex and who wasn't very good at things like gardening or cooking. In one scene, she eats cold beans. In another, she catches a fish but ends up feeding it to the bear instead. She finds her life so mundane that she constantly wants the bear to rip her to pieces and rip her head off. And, well, that happens. The bear swipes at her back. She is naked...exposed to the world. Fully trusting. Then, in a sense, her darkest secrets come rushing out into the light of the world. The bear has left her scarred physically. The taboo has left her scarred emotionally. Losing the blood makes her regain her senses, though. In the end, she grows as a person, albeit one with a few more secrets than before.
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