I love fairy tales. I’ve said that before and I’m sure I’ll say it many times again, but I absolutely love fairy tales, and more specifically I love retellings of them. I find it fascinating how many different ways there are to tell the same stories, all the different aspects that go into staying faithful to the original tales and yet still becoming unique stories in their own right.
My sister pointed me to Shadow of the Bear, and we cracked up because we know the guy whose face is on the cover. I think it was curiosity that pushed us to actually get the book and read it- and possible the desire to bring it up for laugh value the next time we see him- but once we started reading the book, that changed. A lot.
On the surface, the story is an updated telling of Snow White and Rose Red. It’s kind of a neglected little sister to the other Snow White story (you know, the one with the dwarves and the evil queen/stepmother) but I actually like it a lot more. It’s a story of courtesy and greed, of friendship and loyalty, of the bonds between siblings, and- of course- true love.
Instead of a quaint cottage on the edge of a forest, we have a small brownstone in New York City. Blanche and Rose Brier and their mother Jean move there after the death of Mr. Brier, leaving behind their farm community and their homeschooling for the busy streets of the city, education at St. Catherine’s, and- for Jean- work in an emergency room to support her girls. Rose, the younger of the girls, takes well to shared schooling and city life, outgoing and flamboyant and at ease in any setting. Blanche is a worrier, practical and shy and uncomfortable in her own skin, silent and mostly unnoticed in public.
Enter Bear, a large, rather shaggy young man with dredlocks who, contrary to a rather imposing appearance, assists their mother with her dropped groceries. They invite him in to thaw out his frozen feet and a slow, tentative friendship forms. The tentativeness comes mostly from Blanche, who recognizes Bear as someone who hangs around the drug dealers at her school, and Bear readily admits that he was once in juvie for possession. Still, over the course of the winter nights and his regular visits, Blanche starts to wonder if there might not be more to him than dreds and a record.
It isn’t precisely safe to be Bear’s friend, however, something of which he is keenly aware and his younger brother is quick to remind him. When an evening out threatens the girls, he starts to distance himself from them for their own well-being, and even Blanche isn’t sure whether she should be relieved or not.
There are several mysteries that weave through the book, Bear’s true identity the least of them. There’s also his brother Fish, as slippery and hard to pin down as his name implies, the murder of their mentor Father Michael Raymond, and the disappearance of valuable church property. Through these run the threads of family life, of school hazards and the adjustment to life in the city and the wonders and dangers that life offers.
Here’s what sets it aside from most other retellings: Regina Doman is a Catholic writer, and that comes through the story in lovely and unexpected ways. It’s never a sermon, not a point on conversion, but it unfolds through the story, through the characters, and allows for some very interesting thoughts. I’m not personally Catholic so in many ways some of the aspects were like looking into a new world, one of structure but also of comfort. For the girls, especially for Blanche, religion is a way to look out on an otherwise terrifying world, a source of strength and grace in difficult times. For the brothers, it’s a way to make sense of a hard, cruel world, a world where a beloved mother dies and a father disowns them, where their mentor can be murdered within his own church. It’s what got them through juvie and it’s what continues to carry them through their quest to find the identity of the murderer.
It’s not a simple thing, but it’s an elegant one, a nature that supports the story and allows it to unfold. We see the best and worst of mankind, the despair of losing against an encroaching darkness of the human soul, but also the supreme hope and redemption that gives us the promise of better times.
Religion, especially in fiction, can be a chancy thing, largely because it’s a highly personal and easily misinterpreted thing. It’s a polarizing issue and people respond to it with a great deal of passion. That passion often translates to anger or outrage. Here it’s offered with a gentle hand, used to support the story and characters in view of a certain outlook on life, but never used as a bludgeon. It never attempts to step outside the story or become separate from it, an inextricable part of the characters but an offering rather a smack to face.
These characters offer a lot to fall in love with. Bright and bold Rose, unafraid of the world even when she should be, gutsy and resourceful and entirely too trusting; timid and careful Blanche, afraid she’ll let life pass her by but too scared to reach out and take hold of it; Bear, wounded and bone-sweet, careful of others even as he’s relentlessly driven by his quest; sarcastic, flippant, and hard-to-know Fish, good as distancing himself from others but not so skilled at connecting with them. They’re very real characters, mixed with virtues and flaws, people who’ve been damaged in their own ways and finding their own roads to overcoming and incorporating those scars.
And the best news? If you love this book, there are more: Black as Night, Waking Rose, The Midnight Dancers, and Alex O’Donnell and the 40 Cyber Thieves, hopefully with more to come in the future.
Until next time~