The Summer of the Bear
A Novelby Bella Pollen
“Affecting . . . Riveting . . . A thrilling tale that unravels mysteries of the human heart, The Summer of the Bear is spine-tingling.” —People (4 stars)
Best-selling author Bella Pollen’s newest novel—an imaginative family drama in which a young boy believes an escaped bear may hold the key to his father’s sudden death—received stellar reviews in hardcover and was chosen as a Richard & Judy Book Club title.
In 1980 Germany, Cold War tensions are once again escalating and a mole is suspected in the British Embassy. So when the clever diplomat Nicky Fleming dies suddenly and suspiciously, it’s convenient to brand him as the traitor. But was his death an accident, murder, or suicide? As the government digs into Nicky’s history, his wife, Letty, relocates with their three children to a remote Scottish island, hoping to salvage what remains of the family. But the isolated coasts of her childhood retreat only serve to heighten their distance from each other, and it is Letty’s brilliant and peculiar youngest child, Jamie, who alone manages to hold on to the one thing he’s sure of: his father has promised to return and he was a man who never broke a promise.
When Jamie sets off to explore the island with his teenaged sisters, they discover that a tamed grizzly bear has been marooned on shore and is hiding somewhere among the seaside caves. Jamie soon becomes convinced that the bear has a strange connection to his father, and as he grows determined to find the truth, his father’s story begins revealing itself in unexpected ways.
“Affecting . . . Riveting . . . A thrilling tale that unravels mysteries of the human heart, The Summer of the Bear is spine-tingling.” —People (4.5 stars)
“There’s magic at the margins of The Summer of the Bear. . . . The novel has a bit of the style of Lemony Snicket and a smidgeon of The Secret of Roan Inish. Pollen’s writing is clean and clear enough that you can really smell the peat smoke and feel the wind.” —Los Angeles Times
“What’s real and what’s imagined is at the heart of this gem of a novel, which is one part fairy tale, one part international thriller, and all-parts engrossing family drama. . . . Pollen’s lyrical and often witty prose makes this a stirring tale of loss and self-discovery.” —Lynn Schnurnberger, More
“Full of vivid detail . . . Pollen is an acute observer of people and places . . . a skilled dissector of the subtleties of sibling warfare.” —The Washington Post
“This riveting story unspools in a most satisfactory way.” —Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Pollen creates magic in The Summer of the Bear.” —Vanity Fair
“In the time it took me to finish the first two or three sentences, I was already hooked: the characters, their feelings and their behavior seemed entirely real and true to me. . . . The Outer Hebrides are so vividly described that I am obsessed with going there for a visit.” —Nancy Pearl’s 2011 Book Picks for NPR
“A haunting, unsentimental look at estranged families and hidden secrets . . . Magically melancholy . . . Tender and wistful, Pollen doesn’t shy away from harsh truths, but at the heart of her story there’s an unquenchable belief in love and redemption.” —Marie Claire (UK)
“Pollen’s vivid descriptions of nature have the power to transport even the most harried city-bound reader to a cool, secluded, distant island.” —Ruth Baron, O Magazine (Summer Reading List)
“[A] show-stealing, fantastic portrayal of under-parented children.” —Publishers Weekly
“García Márquez meets le Carré meets A.A. Milne at times, with hints of William Golding at others . . . Moving, beautifully written . . . A sensitive and literate story told on several levels, all of them believable.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Pollen delivers a potent narrative about a family gripped by grief.” —Terry Loncaric, Chicago Post-Tribune
“I devoured Bella Pollen’s The Summer of the Bear and found it to be the perfect escape.” —Sadie Stein, The Paris Review
“Pollen sensitively and intricately takes each family member through painful stages of grief and longing.” —Carol Haggas, Booklist
“Part fairy tale, part suspense thriller, this magical book grips hold of you, almost creating the sensation of an out-of-body experience—one that’ll keep you holding your breath until the very last minute.” —Easy Living (UK)
“Imaginative . . . A story with the spark of the unexpected . . . Readers will be captivated by Pollen’s characters and the warmth with which her magical tale unfolds.” —Lauren Bufferd, Bookpage
“A sweet, affecting, well-wrought tale of a family torn apart and then reunited . . . will charm most fiction readers.” —Library Journal
“Bewitching . . . A heartfelt novel.” —Glamour (UK)
“The Summer of the Bear is a heartbreaking story about a family stranded on a Scottish island, shrouded in mystery.” —In Style
“A gently absorbing tale which smoothly splices poignant family drama with suspenseful Cold War thriller.” —Daily Mail
“Pollen is brilliant at portraying the bewilderment of the Fleming children. . . . This is a gentle, haunting tale that stayed with me long after I finished reading.” —Daily Express
“The story of Jamie and siblings is heartbreaking but interspersed with a knowing humour as Pollen captures the subtle witticisms of the islanders as they bend and twist the story of the bear until it takes on a sort of mythical status.” —Scotsman Magazine
“Part spy thriller and part ghost story, this book will keep you enthralled to the last page.” —The Sunday Post
“The plotting is lucid, the dialogue crisp, and the characterization first class. It is a pleasure to spend time in the company of such a relaxed, polished, storyteller.” —Mail On Sunday
“[An] unusual novel . . . [Pollen] excels in her portrait of East Berlin, a tense and paranoid regime of nefarious intent. Also evocative is her portrayal of the Outer Hebrides, always soft and gauzy with mist. The novel revels in the residue of dreams. . . . Touching and emotional.” —Curled Up With a Good Book (blog)
“The Summer of the Bear is the story of a diplomatic family who has just lost its father/husband in ‘uncertain’ circumstances. Consequently, Letty Fleming heads to her home on a Scottish island with her almost adult daughter, her angry at everything teenage daughter, and her 9-year-old son who takes everything he’s told as an exact truth, including that his father has been lost. Pollen has done such a good job of blending the humor one always finds in any family with children, the sadness of losing a family member, and the magical forces of the island. I thoroughly enjoyed it.” —Lisa Sharp, Nightbird Books, Fayetteville, AR
Indie Next List Notable selection (June 2011)
O Magazine Summer Reading Pick
NPR “Books With Personality” (Nancy Pearl’s 2011 Picks)
1 — London
Traffic or no traffic, weather good or bad, the journey from London to the island always took three days. For the children to be confined with one another for such a lengthy period of time seemed nothing short of collective punishment and Georgie decided she’d rather be strapped to the roof rack along with the rest of the suitcases and take her chances with the rain and low-level bridges than feel the evil eye of her younger sister bore into her shoulder blades for one minute longer.
It felt like they were one of those eighteenth-century families being transported to Australia for the theft of a single plum, but at least Australia would be an improvement on what they had been condemned to: an unknown future with only the menagerie of gulls and a few lonely sheep for company. Last night, when her mother had turned on the television to check the weather forecast, Michael Fish had staked his usual ground in front of a map of the United Kingdom.
“A cool summer’s evening, followed by a moderately warm day,” he pronounced, moving a couple of plastic suns onto southern England. “And this band of high pressure will mean sun as well for the Midlands and the north.” He tossed a few more stickers towards Liverpool. By the time he had finished, the entire map of the British Isles had been covered by cheerful yellow suns—the entire map, that is, except for one spot. A solitary grey sticker marred the United Kingdom’s perfect day, a cloud symbol hovering like a storm warning over their future, and beneath it was the exact place to which they were heading.
Her mother had been right about leaving early, though. There were hardly any cars on the road. A sudden flash caught her eye and Georgie turned to see the old Peugeot’s reflection in the corrugated metal wall of an industrial building.
As long as she could remember, they’d had a variation on this kind of car. “Always drive a Peugeot,” she could hear her father saying. “Africa’s favourite car! They’re built in developing countries and have brought affordable transport to millions.” Quite why her father still felt obliged to sanction Africa’s favourite car after they had moved to Bonn, she didn’t know. Compared to the sleeker Opel and brand-new sedans driven by some of his embassy colleagues, the 1967 Standard 404 Saloon was something of an embarrassment, with its fin-tailed rear lights and jerry-built roof rack. Her father adored it, though, referring to it as a faithful old thing and complaining fondly about its arthritic gearstick and stubborn clutch as though it were a decrepit great-uncle who had been graciously allowed to live with the family and was now expected to piggyback them around the city limits in return for board and keep.
Anyway, it wasn’t Germany that the reflection of the Peugeot reminded her of. Something about the dirty white paint with all those blocks of suitcases piled on the roof made her think of Liberia, her father’s first posting. Exchange the car for a cart, add in the lines of people and the bundles of clothing and they could be any refugee family, fleeing from country to country, exchanging one life for another. Packing, sailing, driving, unpacking. She had never minded the idea that life was something you could gather up and take with you. That was the way it was in the diplomatic service and she had become used to the edge of impermanence it gave. Georgie closed her eyes. When she had been nine, her father had been posted back to London. They had sailed out of the Gulf of Guinea, all their belongings lashed and secured in the hold beneath them. When the packing cases had been unloaded into their new quarters, there had not been an inch of floor space left. Now all their worldly goods fitted onto a single roof rack. If you started with a boat and shrank to a car, then by the law of diminishing returns, what came next?
“Are you all right, darling?” Her mother was looking over at her.
“Fine.” She faked a smile before turning back to the window.
They were crossing the canal now, zigzagging up through the tree-lined streets of Little Venice into north London. Georgie took in a dozen moving images. A documentary of a city, blinking open its eyes at first light. A rubbish truck churned by the side of the road. A taxi driver queued for tea at a greasy cafe. Under the overhang of a garage, a security guard smoked a cigarette. People shadowed the streets here and there. What were they doing? Where were they going? Who was lost and who had a purpose? A city was such a mysterious place. All those closed doors, all those lives grinding away behind them. And who could say what might happen to turn them upside down? Somewhere right now, two people might be falling in love; the first spark might catch in a factory fire; a man could fly into a rage, pick up a paperweight and kill his wife. There was no telling who was happy and who was sad. And, like her, there was no knowing what secrets people were being forced to hide.
It annoyed Alba that people accused her of hating things indiscriminately. It wasn’t true. She had her reasons for feeling the way she did and they were good ones. For example, she despised over-polished furniture, easy-listening music and shiny food, as represented by, say, the glaze on doughnuts or the sweaty sheen of a tomato ring. She resented fish, loathed any form of sentimentality and strongly believed that doors should be kept either open or shut, but never in-between. This short list, selected entirely at random, did not constitute the sum total of Alba’s wrath at life. Far from it. Alba incubated a fresh grievance for each day of the week. In fact, if someone cared to ask her—and God knows, she often wished they would—she could dredge up a bona fide irritation for every letter of the alphabet.
Where these prejudices came from she had little idea, yet she recognized them as immutable—steadfast, too, was the scorn she felt for her fellow human beings. Vegetarians, religious fanatics, English teachers, weathermen—at one point or other all these pervs had been in her line of fire. Nevertheless, the person she despised the most, the person who drove her absolutely cjubulunga, the person who was to blame for everything that had happened to their family, if she could only work out precisely how, was, without a shadow of a doubt, her brother, Jamie.
There he was now, sitting across from her on the passenger seat. Holy God, what a revolting sight. His breath smelt sour and the chalky residue of night dribble around his mouth turned her insides.
“Retard,” she whispered.
Jamie was rubbing his legs. Long smooth strokes, up and down, up and down, up and—
“Stop doing that!”
“Fondling your legs.”
“But I’m not touching you.”
“You’re annoying me, which is worse.”
“Leave him be, Alba.” Her mother’s hand snaked through the divide and connected with Jamie’s knee. “He’s just tired.”
Alba scowled. This was it. Exactly it. Excuses were always being made for her brother. In her opinion, if he wasn’t babied so much, he’d be obliged to grow up. Jamie was nearly nine years old but still unable to read or write and the only reason he could count to ten was because he’d been born with the visual aid of fingers and thumbs.
“Retard,” she mouthed at him as soon as their mother’s attention was reclaimed by the road.
Alba enjoyed using the word “Retard.” In fact, Jamie aside, she enjoyed the company of actual retards. As a punishment for incinerating her games kit the previous term, the school had sentenced her to weekend community service and given her the choice of visiting old people or playing games with the mentally ill. Alba couldn’t stand old people, with their tottering gait and rotting gums. She was repulsed by the milky colostomic smell hovering about their skin, let alone the sparse, duck-down hair, which gave the impression of trying to distance itself as far as possible from their scalps. Old people had been born a long time ago and understood nothing of the world she inhabited. Retards, on the other hand, turned out to be a lot of fun: jolly and uncomplicated, impervious to insult and physically game for as many rounds of “What’s the time, Mr Wolf?” as Alba cared to make them play. It was like having a group of friendly, pliable trolls to order about and Retard Round-Up, as she dubbed it, became a fixture for the rest of the school term. Jamie, however, was not a pliable, friendly troll. He was stupid, spoilt and whiny beyond endurance.
“Jamie,” she bellowed. “You’re doing it again.”
“I’m not,” he gasped.
“My legs hurt.”
“Rubbing them makes them feel better.”
“I don’t care.” She fashioned her thumb and forefinger into a pincer.
“Ow,” he cringed in anticipation. “Stop it.”
But Alba had no intention of stopping. Every slap and pinch was a reflex born of her irritation and for every one successfully delivered, she felt that much better.
“Retard,” she mouthed for the third time.
“Alba, for goodness’ sake!” Now it was Georgie who turned round. “Just be nice.”
“What’s so good about being nice?” she retorted, then, when no one responded, added, “Dada was nice to everyone and look where it got him.”
“Where?” Jamie asked, immediately alert.
“Alba!” her mother hissed.
“Alba, shhh.” Georgie threw a meaningful glance towards her brother.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Though gratified by the reaction, Alba was aggravated nonetheless. How predictable. It was always Jamie everyone worried about—as if he had somehow acquired sole rights to the family’s grieving. What about her? Why did no one seem to care how she felt? Anger rose up through her stomach like milk on the boil. She was sick of being shushed before she had finished. She was sick of half-truths and unspoken truths and all the lame excuses in between. She didn’t believe in God, she didn’t believe in Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy and she was damned if she’d believe any of the other lies that parents told their children.
by Lindsey Tate
1. Set between the natural wilderness of the Outer Hebrides and the civilization of Bonn and its nuanced rules of diplomatic society, The Summer of the Bear follows Letty Fleming and her children as they struggle to comprehend the sudden death of their beloved husband and father. Begin your discussion by considering the differences between these two settings and how they reflect Letty’s emotional conflicts. Is she better able to understand what happened in Germany away from Germany, or is there something about the Outer Hebrides that clouds her thinking?
2. Continuing with your discussion of setting and place, think specifically about the remote Scottish islands where everyone lies at the constant mercy of the wind, the tides, and lack of daylight. Talk about the influence of the natural world on each member of the family. How do they adjust to this new way of life, both physically and spiritually?
3. When Nicky dies, Letty and the children find a gaping hole at the center of their world. Examine the ways in which the British diplomatic community has shaped their lives and the ways in which, on Nicky’s death, they no longer have a place in this society. Why do you think Letty flees to the Outer Hebrides? What is she hoping to find there? Do you think Letty is fleeing from her life in Bonn or, rather, fleeing toward something in the Outer Hebrides?
4. Heartbroken and bewildered, Letty is left as the head of her family and feels very much out of her depth in this new role. “It no longer felt as if they were a family. More like a collection of damaged souls bound by a set of rites and rhythms over which they had little control—but then maybe that was the definition of a family” (pp. 18-19). Discuss Letty’s thought process here. What do you think the definition of a family is? Is it possible for there to be a fixed definition for something so fluid and so dependent on external forces? How does an event such as an unexpected death like Nicky’s throw the contours of a family into stark relief?
5. Discuss the structure of the novel with its flashbacks and changing narrative viewpoints from adult to children to bear. Did it serve to deepen your experience of the novel? If so, how? What were your thoughts when you understood that the narrator of the “swimmer” chapters was the bear? How long did it take for you to realize this? Were you happy to suspend your disbelief and to move forward with the novel as a magical fable?
6. Talk about Letty’s character. What is it about her that made her something of a misfit in Bonn among the diplomats’ wives? Would you consider her inability to conform as a character strength or weakness? How does it impact her treatment at the hands of Nicky’s former colleagues, and the formidable ambassadress in the weeks following Nicky’s death? How much of this treatment does she bring on herself by not fighting back? Why do you think she doesn’t?
7. Despite his death in the first chapter, Nicky Fleming remains a strong presence in the book. It is his very personal and rigid sense of morality that shapes the story. Discuss his role as a father and as a diplomat. Was he right to flout the diplomatic code by putting family before king and country? Or humanity over the political ideals of his government? Was his decision to protect the island selfish or selfless?8. Discuss whether it is Nicky’s death that shakes Letty more, or the questions that his death raises? Is she more concerned by the fact that he might have been a traitor or that he was not the man she thought she knew?
9. What does their friend and fellow diplomat, Tom, mean by “Hold on to what you believe. That’s all that’s important” (p. 139).
10. Consider the statement, “people tended to sleepwalk through their lives . . . capable only of happiness retrospectively—until something happened that was monumental and only then did life divide into the before and after” (p. 19). One of the book’s themes is that moment before knowing, before life changes forever. The before and the after. Sometimes, as with death, the characters have no control over these defining moments, but at other times they make a conscious decision to change their lives in inalterable ways. Find examples of this throughout the novel and talk about the way the characters can mold their own lives by stepping willingly into the “after.” Is it sometimes preferable to be in an “after” moment where one can begin to move forward and heal rather than to remain stuck in the unpredictability of the “before?”
11. Letty spares Jamie from attending his father’s funeral, and spares all three children her tears and the talk. Instead she “turns turtle” and retreats into silence. At what point does her protection of the children turn into doing them harm? And what about herself? Is she helping or harming herself? Why do you think she is so afraid of talk?
12. The author writes beautifully on the ways in which families work and is especially sensitive to the ways in which families communicate—or don’t. Discuss the importance of the theme of “communication” throughout the novel starting with Nicky’s statement, “Almost everything that goes wrong in the world is due to people not knowing how to talk to each other.” Find instances of Letty and her children failing to communicate with each other.
13. Alba, the middle child, bristles with anger throughout the novel, furious that secrets are being kept from her by her mother and her older sister. “She eyeballed her mother willing her to answer all the suspicions she didn’t dare voice.” How is her adolescent fury a means of communication? How does her mother react? What is Alba really hoping for? After Letty finds out about Alba’s shoplifting spree, she is roused into anger for a moment and then she and Alba return to the status quo with the silence between them “stretched long and shrill.” What are your feelings for Letty as she fails her daughter, as the seeds are set for potential tragedy?
14. Alba lashes out at life around her, stealing from the local shop because she believes that life owes her—although shoplifting “couldn’t add up to the debt that life was obligated to pay her” (p. 200). Do you understand what she means by this? Can you empathize? Would you say that this feeling of discontent reflects a growing trend in our society?
15. Talk about Georgie, the oldest child. How would you describe her character? Discuss how the knowledge of carrying secrets affects her and changes her. How does she grow up during the course of the novel? How far would you say this sentence describes Georgie’s role in
the family? “As always it fell to Georgie to bridge the gulf between her mother’s pretence at normality and her sister’s mutinous rebuttal” (p. 38).
16. Consider the elusive quality of truth in the novel. How far does Letty want to go in her pursuit of the truth behind Nicky’s death? Does she really want to know the truth, or instead a truth she can live with? Discuss the place of truth in Bonn’s diplomatic society life, set against the backdrop of the Cold War.
17. Continuing your analysis of truth—or approximation thereof—throughout the novel, turn your thoughts to Jamie Fleming, Letty’s youngest child. Jamie lives in a world of his own making, an amalgamation of reality and fantasy strung together from the hints, stories, and off-hand comments of others, especially his parents. How far would you agree that his parents are responsible for perpetuating his inability to live in the real world? Is this harmful to him? Why do you think they constantly protect him from the truth?
18. In many ways, through the character of Jamie, the narrative questions reality: Is it something that we all conspire to agree on in the adult world? Talk about the narrative as a search for what is real. Is it possible that Jamie with his childish honesty, his lack of irony or sarcasm and his literal view of the world, has the least distorted version of reality?
19. In a magical collision of reality and imagination, Jamie believes that the lost bear is his deceased father, seeking out his family. Discuss the ways in which Jamie comes to this conclusion—and why it appears to be so obvious to him. How effective was this fable-like binding of magic and reality? Do you agree with Jamie’s thoughts, “Why was he the only person who believed in anything? Why was he always the only one not to succumb to the epidemic of hopelessness? Were faith and optimism things that disappeared when you grew up?” (p. 185)
20. Nicky’s determination to honor his promises to the children accounts for Jamie’s conviction that his father will return to him. This is turn leads to Jamie’s belief that his father has come back in the form of the bear. Do you feel this promise saves Jamie’s life or puts his life in danger?21. It is left up to the reader to decide whether the bear truly is Nicky or whether the connection is a figment of Jamie’s imagination. For those who believe that Nicky does in some way reappear to keep his pledge to Jamie and save the life of his son, discuss whether Nicky can be deemed to have kept his promise to each member of his family and how this ultimately allows them to find peace.22. Consider the children as a group and talk about the ways they react to their new post-Bonn life. A review for this novel refers to the children as “underparented”—would you agree with this description of them?
23. “Everyone has a place where they fit into their skins, a place where they are able to make sense of the world, and the island was hers.” Discuss the moment when Letty realizes that while this may be her home, her moral compass, it is certainly not that of her children’s.
24. “Everything and every event is pervaded by the Grace of God” (p. 181). What do you think Nicky means by this, and why did he leave it with the details of his “betrayal?” How true do you think it is?
25. While charting the family’s separate journeys into grief, the author also manages to infuse the novel with a fine sense of wit and humor. Find elements of light-heartedness throughout the story and discuss its place within the emotional arc of the narrative.
26. What do the islanders represent? Compare the close-knit society of the islands to that of the governmental community in Bonn.
27. How satisfactory did you find the novel’s conclusion? Would you consider the novel, ultimately, as hopeful? Discuss what might lie in the future for the Fleming family.
Witches on the Road Tonight by Sheri Holman; The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Three Junes by Julie Glass; Atonement by Ian McEwan