Friday, January 21, 2011


John Straley's The Woman Who Married a Bear is one of the most concrete books I've ever read.

By concrete, I mean the story is completely inseparable from its Alaska setting.  Here's a quote to give you a sense of what I mean.  The main character, an alcoholic detective named Cecil Younger, is talking to one of the suspects--

Pieces of cut-up pallets burned and popped in the fire at the bottom of the drum.  A black bird walked the soft mud flat by the river, and beyond the river the tundra was hiding itself in low rises that shortened the horizon and brought distance in closer.

"You know what I see when I look out there?"

The fire sizzled and I held my tongue.  I'm a sucker for stepping on rhetorical questions but this was not the time.  He slumped forward a little and shoved the toe of his boot into the top of a motor oil carton that happened to be lying in front of him.

"I see nothing.  Nothing to get in my way, and nothing to stop me from doing exactly what the fuck I want to do.  That's what wilderness is for.  That's what brought the pioneers here.  I like it.  It makes me feel good.  You know I could feed you to this river and nobody would give a shit."

That quote tells a lot about the nature of this book.  An old Tlingit woman in a nursing home asks Cecil Younger to find out the facts about her son's death.  "I know how it happened. I want to know why," she tells Younger.

The son was a bear hunter. His is not the only murder. Someone kills a young woman who witnessed the events leading up to the bear hunter's murder.  Along the way, someone attacks Cecil.  Cecil's mentally handicapped friend gets in the way.

With his friend in the hospital on the edge of death, Cecil sets out to do what he's been hired to do. And the solution hinges on an old traditional story, the story of the woman who married a bear. 

The book is filled with beautiful and sometimes brutal descriptions of a hard land. The nature of the people and the nature of the landscape meld.

This is an excellent book.  At first, I found it confusing and somewhat uninteresting, but then it got intense. It got to be the kind of book I like to read.

I'll be reading more John Straley.


Naomi Johnson said...

Now there are two of us, Joe! Excellent review.

Paul D. Brazill said...

This does sound good. Smashing title too!

Joe Barone said...

Thanks, Naomi. I'm sure you are aware your review led me to the book, and I'm truly glad it did.

Paul, It is a good book. One thing I found out afterward is that the tale of The Woman Who Married A Bear has many forms. There are children's books which give the tale, in a different form than it is used here, I am amost sure.

Richard R. said...

I've been meaning to take one of the Straley books off the shelf for a long time, and this review will get me to do that. Thanks!

Joe Barone said...

You are very welcome.