More Alien Than Space Ships
Bear Daughter by Judith Berman has been lying on my desk for the longest time. I finished reading it weeks ago, but writing the review was daunting. Not because Bear Daughter is a bad book, but because I couldnít organise my thoughts to form a proper opinion. The deadline has come and gone and has come again, so I will attempt to unravel my ambivalence.
Bear Daughter is the story of Cloud, a young girl who wakes up one morning in the village of Sandpit to discover she has become fully human. Overnight she lost her bear part. She is very confused about this (as was I when I read it), but the people in the village seem to accept the fact that bears sometimes are people too. Cloudís father is Lord Stink, an immortal bear spirit. Her mother is the lovely Thrush, married to the human King Rumble, who is mightily displeased with Cloudís existence.
The story goes that King Rumble, in his hunger for power, has bound up the ghosts of Cloudís bear brothers and bear father, creating a hole in the mortal world that only Cloud can close. But Cloud wants to be a human girl and forget about her bear self. She flees Sandpit to escape the cruelty of Rumble and the threat of his wizard, Bone. Her flight becomes a journey that will take her to some very magical places, from "the watery home of the orcas to the celestial seat of the prince of heaven." She travels across what must be Northern America and encounters talking animals, spirit beings and some actual people. During her journey, the ghosts of her brothers cry out to her, asking her to save them.
The story has many recognisable elements in it: bear, girl, soul, family, spirit, mountain, water and dog. But Berman has a peculiar way of combining them. Being almost totally ignorant of Native and/or North American culture, I didnít know what to do with the gods and spirits in the story. To me, the characters were more alien than space ships and I just couldnít relate. I had the feeling I was missing some important information and that Iím from the wrong cultural background to fully appreciate the book.
I really wanted to like it, because Bear Daughter is a different book, with a magical quality that a lot of mainstream fantasy doesnít have. It was a joy to read a book without white skinned, blond haired fairy kings and queens, helpless women, heroic men, magic rings and wizard trainees. I love the way Berman writes: it is alive and clean and to the point. But it all felt too alien and I just couldnít handle Cloud.
It infuriated me that she acted so powerless while she had so much power within reach. Why didnít she use her anger? Why reject her power just to be a human girl, when her personal path was obvious? Maybe it is a Book With a Message. After all, many women wait too long before they use their real power, and some never discover it. And maybe that annoyed me in Cloud. Maybe that part of the story was a wee bit too recognisable.