The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

This book, with its eleven-year-old heroine and her father, is a first novel.  It is beautifully written with a strong environmental message.

April Wood lives with her father, a scientist and widower, and loves to spend time in her garden, observing nature and befriending a wild fox she calls Braveheart.  Her father is offered a job in a remote island in the Arctic, Bear Island, where he will make meteorological surveys. April and her father will be alone there for six months.

His work totally absorbs him so April wanders the island to explore.

The remoteness, the loneliness and the intense cold are a new experience, although she had always felt to be a solitary child. She was not very happy at school, and had no close friends.  To educate her during the six months on Bear Island, she has six volumes of an encyclopaedia. Their animal content is her focus….

One day she meets a very thin, hungry Polar Bear which has been injured by plastic embedded in its paw. The only bear on the island, he has been isolated from others by the melting of the ice cap.

April feeds oatcakes, her lunch, to the bear. It wolfs them down.  She frees the plastic from the paw using her father’s Swiss Army knife. This, for me, strikes a jarring note of implausibility.  A huge animal in pain would be intolerant of a strange being performing such a delicate task.  April herself believes her rapport with animals keeps her safe, although she is aware of the bear’s ability to kill and eat her.

Until this stage, I was enjoying the book very much, but this element of fantasy spoiled it.

The tale of April and the Polar Bear continues, as her father works long hours, ignorant of her encounters with the bear.

She raids their food store and discovers peanut butter is a favourite. Again, it would be highly unlikely that a jar of this would satisfy the hunger of an enormous, starving animal. The story continues in this vein with April risking her life constantly with her adventures with the bear.  She establishes a means of communication/understanding even to the degree that she persuades it to push a heavy boat into the sea.

Beyond this challenge to reality, however, there is an overwhelming power to April and the last bear’s story. A child’s ability to achieve the near impossible with courage and determination, and bonds that can form between species, overcome my reservations on this score.

April’s near death and ultimate success plus her poignant parting from her friend, are deeply touching.

The plight of the planet and the Arctic, in particular, is an important and integral part of their story too.

Children love animals so the giant furry bear would be very appealing. Many are concerned about climate so the themes in The Last Bear would resonate for them. April collects plastic and rubbish on the beach – a horrifying fact that underlines man’s far-reaching, negative impact on beautiful areas of the world.

This is a book for our times.  Hannah Gold lives in Lincolnshire, so her country and most of the world is in the grip of the pandemic. This heart-warming, quite unforgettable story is a distraction from everyday life but nonetheless puts a spotlight on what many maintain is the most important issue of our time.

Illustrated by prize-winning Levi Pinfold, The Last Bear is very fine indeed.

There is such a wonderfully vast range of children’s literature now, but this book stands out as one of the best. It is a heart-warming treat which, despite some reservations, I truly enjoyed.

The Last Bear

[2021]

by Hannah Gold

Harper Collins

ISBN 978 00084 1128 2

$19.99; 294pp

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