Bear War-den by Vivian Demuth

Inanna Publications always has something different to read, so I often look to them for a book that is a change of pace from the norm. While browsing their website, I noticed Bear War-den (2015) by Vivian Demuth. In the brief description on the Inanna site it stated: “Told in an experimental style that mixes realism and magical realism, and interrupted by photographs and by the voice of a bear, Bear War-den explores themes of personal and ecological loss, trauma, and of women and non-human animals dealing with oppression within a male-dominated, and often paramilitary-like Parks Management system. “

A succinct description that certainly caught my attention, and after finishing Bear War-den, I was pleased to have read it. Over at Goodreads, I rated it 5 stars, primarily based on its style of writing and originality. In fact, I was about 40% of the way through it when I had to start re-reading it. This was due to not initially grasping the unconventional storyboard and disparate voices and time periods covered throughout the book. Once I understood it, I thoroughly enjoyed the remainder of this very special book. Ms. Demuth, who has worked as a park warden and ranger, an outdoor educator and a fire lookout in the Rocky Mountains. So she writes of what she knows and has experienced over the years.

Johanna, the Bear Warden

Johanna Bergen is the seasonal Bear Warden in a Rocky Mountain National Park, and as a woman, she is in the minority in a white-male dominated organization. Women are typically viewed as not ‘strong’ enough or capable of filling more senior positions. She was once told by a Senior Parks Officer that despite all her experience as a warden and ranger, if he hired her (as a woman) he would have to hire backup. This leads Johanna to file a human rights complaint.

However, on the job Johanna manages to hold her own most of the time. “Suck it up, cupcake” she tells a male co-worker after disagreeing with him on whether or not to tranquilize, tag and collar a particular bear that Johanna knows is no real threat to humans (as are the vast majority of bears, as we are informed). “This is the last remaining bear territory. We need to manage the humans more.” 

At Goodreads, I rated Bear War-den 5 stars, primarily based on its style of writing and originality

Johanna would like to see more respect for women, for wildlife and for life in general.  Towards the end of the book a bear voice commends Johanna: “You have learned how to listen, you even know how to speak to the wind. Most humans would think you’re crazy. They’ve forgotten or don’t believe.” This accounts for Johanna’s affinity for bears and her intuitive understanding of them.

Bear War-den travels back and forth through Johanna’s life, from the tragic death of her father to her present interactions with First Nations people and residents of an ecovillage to her magical hallucinatory quest and adventures with a talking bear skull in the midst of a forest fire. The story builds to a dream-like climax where many of Johanna’s questions about her father’s death as well as the suspicious death of a favourite bear named Tiny are answered.

Conclusion

Sometimes surreal, but always up-front on environmental, ecological and feminist issues, Bear War-den is a must read if you are an advocate of any or all of the above. If you persevere with its fresh experimental style, I’m sure you will enjoy it.

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