It is a rare experience that offers both wonder and true, terrifying danger at the same time. Watching a brown bear wander your kitchen, snuffling after the doughnuts on the counter, having ripped out your back screen door like tissue paper, is one of them. Best to retreat, leave that prehensile-lipped, brawny, not-quite-man creature to his spoils, and remember next time that you're not the only body with a nose for Dunkies.
Judith Berman's first novel approaches that same fear-fascination of powerful animals from a fantasy perspective, bouncing loosely off several versions of Northwestern Native American myth to create a hard, heightened world of bloodcurdling destruction and dogged renewal. Cloud, the titular character, enters puberty with a particular bodily predicament: having spent her entire childhood furry and on four legs, she is as surprised as anyone to find herself two-legged, naked, and bewilderingly human one morning.
A less ambitious novel would have played within the confines of this one metaphor, but Berman flexes narrative muscle and magic, creating a larger, whole-world context for human weakness. As Cloud puzzles out the stifling silences of her human kin about the other side of her heritage, she finds herself expelled from what tenuous home she could claim, wandering the world at large, discovering the magical framework on which ordinary life rests. (Backstory from Berman's short story "Lord Stink" is presented anew and from varying perspectives; the novel can be read independently.)
Cloud's quest is not exactly goal-oriented. Terrified of her own bearish personality traits, caught up in petty warfare and the monstrous crimes of her town's king, Rumble, Cloud is swept from one encounter to the next, sometimes literally on storm waves, struggling for marginal control of self and environment. Human warriors abuse her; spirits talk to her; and the First People, creatures of magic, human aspect, and animal power, offer a respite on their side of the world, and a bit of long-view perspective. (Like most godlike creatures, the First People, and the orca-people in particular, find humans vaguely amusing in their tiny struggles.)
As a narrative of the animal-in-human, Bear Daughter is a rich novel of smells, weather, hungers, and a very present, vivid physical environment, even unto detailed descriptions of gore. Berman conjures a distinctive world of moss, rotting fish, cedar bark, cold rain, and pungent smoke, as filtered through Cloud's perspective. The totality of the fantasy world, its climatic location, its scenery, its ecological set of gods and myths, creates a weight that the narrative might not otherwise carry. Sandspit Town's awkward distaste for Cloud (and all bears) helps foreground the absence of balance and peace in the town; a key scene near the end presents a number of adult bears' perspectives on the presumption of human beings.
Through all this runs the thread of Cloud's power and fear-of-power, and the discovery of cyclical gain and loss, death and rebirth. She attempts to sidestep the magic that swirls around her, flees her dreams, and denies in terror her capacity for rage, but neither her bear heritage nor the fractured confusion of her human community let her hide in the helplessness she claims. At last Cloud takes up an active role in her journey, fighting off foes and carrying bones on her back toward the end of the world, discovering step by messy step her own balance between restraint and rage. The ultimate surrender, for a moody, solitary bear, might be finding a way to live in a community; Cloud's journey takes her around, back to the beginning, and onward into mistakes, triumphs, and the hard work that makes up a life.
Jane Acheson is a nonfiction editor, grammarian, baseball fan, and sometime reviewer from New England. This is her first work for Strange Horizons.
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