Books

The Bear Is a Mesmerizing Fable About the End of Humanity

A bear cub.
Juneau the grizzly bear cub at the Palm Beach Zoo on Dec. 17, 2015. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Bear is a coming-of-age fable about the last person on Earth. That isn’t a spoiler—the unnamed girl’s status as humanity’s final survivor is never in doubt in Andrew Krivak’s painful, beautiful new book, which begins: “The last two were a girl and her father who lived along the old eastern range on the side of a mountain they called the mountain that stands alone.” Most post-apocalyptic fiction offers hope in some form, whether it’s the caravanning Shakespeare companies of Station Eleven or the new family the son finds in The Road. Not so in The Bear. By halfway through the book, the girl is alone, and alone she’ll stay—save for the animals of the forest.

The Bear is not young-adult fiction, but in some ways it’s reminiscent of young-adult survival classics like Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves, or Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Like the preteen and teenage heroes of those books, the girl and her father know a great number of cool-sounding strategies for staying alive involving deer skin and pine needles. The difference is that they’re not surviving until some particular endpoint, like waiting for rescuers or toughing out the winter or finding their way to a settlement. Since we’ve been told there’s no one else left, their otherwise-impressive human accomplishments—advanced tool-making, cairn-building, storytelling—take on a melancholy cast. If you know you’re the end of it all, that Homo sapiens will die when you do, why bother carrying on?

Krivak’s descriptions of this forested world, so loving and vivid that you can feel the lake water and smell the sea, make the answer clear: It’s because there’s joy to be found in carrying on. Her father teaches the girl “where to dive for the mussels they boiled and served for dinner with a plate of wild onions” and “how to make a rabbit snare and a dessert of cattail rhizomes and rose-hip jam for the meal they caught in the snare” and “how to hunt for swarms of wild honeybees when the goldenrod bloomed before the autumn equinox, and how to take honey from the tree where those bees had built their hive.” He shows her how to use Polaris as a guide, how to tell approximate time with an impromptu sundial, and how to climb to the top of the nearby mountain, where her mother is buried, without tiring. He even teaches her how to read and write, though it’s not necessary anymore.

The father once had his own parents who were still searching for “others,” and the hope of humanity’s continuance is alive in him. He carries on that legacy by reading books by Virgil, Homer, Hilda Doolittle, and Wendell Berry. He also sees value in the things left behind in the sunken place where the “others” once lived, which he and his daughter pass by on their journey to the sea for salt, convinced that they might be able to turn glass into arrowheads or find some amusement looking into a mirror. That belief is what gets him killed when he reaches into a darkened crevice looking for salvage and receives a nasty animal bite. Soon, the girl is officially alone, and it’s then, with no other ties to humanity left, that she moves still closer to nature and to joy. A bear accompanies the girl back to her home, so she can bury her father’s bones next to her mother’s, and helps her through the winter. He is a useful fishing and foraging companion, a witness to her terrible grief, and a philosophical conversation partner. (Like I said: It’s a fable.) Paralyzed with sadness, the girl struggles with the desire to die without returning to perform the ritual she promised her father, and it’s the bear who persuades her to continue. At a key moment of danger, she’s also joined by a (less chatty) puma.

The girl and her father call the mountain they live on “the mountain that stands alone,” which is a loose translation for the word “monadnock,” used by the Abenaki to describe the peak in southwestern New Hampshire we now call Mount Monadnock. (Krivak lives part time near that mountain, and this part of the state inspired the descriptions of the landscape in The Bear.) If there’s anything to quibble with in this beautiful book, it’s the utopianism of this vision of the circularity of man’s relationship to the land. At one point, the father starts a story this way: “A long time ago, long before there were many others who lived on the earth, there were people who lived here, in the shadow of the mountain that stands alone. Except for our books and tools, they lived much the same way we do now, raising vegetables, foraging, fishing on the lake, and hunting in the forest.” In the father’s rudimentary understanding of the history of the humans who’ve lived where they live, there were Native people, then there were “others” (modern Americans), and then the people the father lived among—the last humans. While she is alone by the end of the book, the girl has also learned to understand the conversations of animals, like some among these first people could—a vision of connection restored.

Written less subtly, this could feel like another fantasy about white return to the land. But this is also a story of ultimate loss, leaving us with no uncertainty about the future of humanity. Though words climate change do not appear in The Bear, the book’s message—that “nature” will continue on, even if humans change things so much that we ruin our own chances for survival—is unmistakable. We never find out why the rest of humanity died out; the father and daughter don’t know. The father always “wondered,” but the girl finds an odd kind of hope when she relinquishes all connection to the way things were. When she returns home alone, she doesn’t go back to live in the house her father and mother built, but lets it melt away into the earth, the precious salvaged windowpanes included. She uses their Virgil, Homer, Doolittle, and Berry for kindling, lives to a happy old age, and dies alone, untouched on the forest floor while “shoots of grass, wildflowers, and young maples [grow] around and through her soft and sunken body.” The mingling of pleasure and pain makes this more like an anti-survival story: a perfect fable for the age of solastalgia.