The Great Bear – by David A. Robertson
Tundra Books, 2021
In The Barren Grounds, the first volume of David Robertson’s middle-grade novel trilogy, The Misewa Saga, readers met foster siblings Morgan and Eli, two Indigenous children living apart from their community. In the Great Bear, they both continue to struggle with issues of cultural and personal autonomy, and return to Misewa through the secret portal, activated through posting the drawings that are a product of Eli’s artistic gifts. Again, Robertson’s accomplishment in the book is difficult to describe. Blending fantasy with realism, psychological acuity, social commentary, and cultural traditions, he has created a riveting story that is more than the sum of its parts. (His nonfantasy work is also impressive.)
Everything is subtle in Robertson’s narrative world. Eli and Morgan’s relationship with their foster parents is sensitively portrayed; they are good people who try their hardest to understand children whose experiences have been radically different than their own. It would be easy to portray them as well-intentioned do-gooders who fail at every turn. Instead, their essential humanity and their limited ability to understand Morgan and Eli coexist. When Eli’s identity makes him the object of cruelty at school, both his background and his individual personality combine to threaten the racist students, and both parts of him eventually become tools for his resistance. Morgan deeply empathizes with him, but at the same time she feels overwhelmed by the absence of her mother, who is only a faint memory. She needs to reconcile the essential split between her life in the present and her lost Indigenous past. That process, by definition, will be difficult and incomplete, but she needs to undertake it.
Memory is the key word in the novel, both on the personal level and that of collective experience. As Mihko, the anthropomorphic fisher, explains to the children: “When you know a place in this way, when you know it before you’ve seen it, it’s called blood memory.” Eli and Morgan’s journey to this place becomes even more complex than in the first novel, involving time travel and confronting how the choices they make may potentially affect the past. Robertson expects that his readers will engage with difficult questions, and he offers them the motivation which this type of reading requires. There are references to popular culture, but also allusions to literary classics. Characters evolve, circumstances change, and a certain instability is always part of the picture. But so is strength. Morgan and Eli gradually come to understand that “What was to happen had to happen.” The Great Bear is not a prescription for resolving this paradox, but an exciting story of two brave young people using the wisdom of their community to emotionally survive.