The Bear, National Book Award finalist Andrew Krivak’s third novel, is a “beautiful and elegant … gem” (Publishers Weekly) that explores a world at the end of humanity. The last two humans on Earth—a father and daughter—live off the land at the foot of a mountain, learning to live alongside the rhythms of a world reclaimed by nature. Then one day, the girl is alone: left only with the lessons her father taught her and the companionship of the vast wilderness. "Krivak folds the deep past and the far future into a remarkable fable about our inheritance as humanity makes a harmonic return to the spirit and animal worlds," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Adam Johnson. Krivak’s descriptions are “so loving and vivid that you can feel the lake water and smell the sea” (Slate). “This tender story is endowed with such fullness of meaning that you have to assign this short, touching book its own category: the post-apocalypse utopia” (Wall Street Journal).
“... She lay on the ground beneath a warm sun and wondered if world and time itself were like the hawk and eagle soaring above her in long arcs she knew were only part of their flight, for they must have begun and returned to someplace as of yet unseen by her, someplace as of yet unknown.” — The Bear
The third novel from poet and novelist Andrew Krivak, The Bear tells the story of an Edenic future, where nature has reclaimed the world and humanity is in its twilight. The last two people, a girl and her father, live close to the land in the shadow of a lone mountain. They possess only a few remnants of civilization: a comb becomes “a thing delicate and to be revered” (p. 17), a pane of glass "so precious a thing it had become as the skill for making it was lost and forgotten" (p. 13). There, in a small house that the girl’s parents built together before her mother’s death, the man and the girl learn to live in harmony with the wilderness around them. He shows her how to fish and hunt, the secrets of the seasons and the stars, and how to climb far without tiring. He is preparing her to someday be alone, for they are the last of humankind and someday they too will be gone.
The father has kept a small collection of books and he teaches the girl to read and write, though there are few uses for the skill. They read aloud together in the evenings and poetry fills their home: Virgil and Homer, Wendell Berry and Hilda Doolittle, “poems about gods and men and the wars between them, the beauty of small things, and peace” (p. 32). The girl and her father live entirely in the present, within the diurnal rhythms of the natural world. In this vision of the future, there are no longer clocks or calendars; time is both a single moment and a vast expanse. The past, too, remains unmeasured and untold; Krivak never reveals the event that has led to the end of humanity, and an explanation is never necessary. The story is the story, he seems to say. Wherever it came from, wherever it will go, it exists in the simple act of being.
When the girl and her father journey to the sea to retrieve salt for their stores, tragedy occurs and the girl finds herself alone in an unknown landscape. In spare and careful detail, Krivak locates her grief in the natural world: the speech of a river current, the filmy green of morning light through trees, the precise quality of a last breath. Lost and grieving, the girl meets a bear who guides her home—and in doing so, teaches her to build a new relationship with the wilderness around her. Through the bear’s lessons, Krivak lifts the veil between humanity and nature, calling us all to find beauty in the worlds that lie beyond our understanding. “By calling the novel The Bear,” Krivak writes, “I am suggesting that there is hope all around us, if we step back and see ourselves as part of—not the center of—a larger, ever more beautiful and animate world…. The novel is not meant to be a post-apocalyptic story so much as a cautionary tale. The beauty is still here. The question is: What do we do now while the chance is ours to protect this world, to remain with it, and perhaps become an even more intimate part of it?” (author’s website).
- From the very first sentence, we’re aware that this will be a novel that grapples with human extinction. How do the man and his daughter, described as “the last two” (p. 13), each view their place in their world? How did you view their place in that world? Did your view change over the course of the book? If you and someone you loved were the last two on Earth, what do you think your view would be?
- How does the novel portray the father and daughter’s relationship? How is their relationship similar to parent/child relationships in our current day? How does it differ? Are there moments in their relationship that remind you of relationships in your own life?
- In an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts Art Works podcast, Krivak observes that in The Bear, “storytelling is so much a matter of memory...there's a quality of what's forgotten as much as what's remembered.” The novel never reveals what past events have led to humankind’s extinction. Why do you think Krivak chose not to be explicit about what happened in the past? How did it affect your experience of the book?
- Early in the novel, the girl watches a bear emerge from the woods and walk toward the lake. She asks her father, “Was my mother a bear?” (p. 35). Why might she pose this question? At another point, the father tells his daughter a fairy tale about a talking bear that saves a village. Why do you believe the author included this story within a story? What other roles do bears play in the novel?
- Krivak has stated that the novel first took shape during a moment alone, fishing on a lake in the shadow of New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock. What experiences of place have shaped your own life or offered creative inspiration?
- Throughout the book, the girl and her father cherish familiar items from our current day and time, including “paper bound between leather covers and a graphite pencil, which [the man] kept sharpened with his knife” (p. 16). What kinds of meaning do they assign to these objects? Did this change your perspective on any of the everyday objects in your life?
- As the girl gets older, the man teaches her “...about what had been and why it had been that way, from tales recounted in old words of an old time on old pieces of paper bound between cracked and fraying covers” (p. 33), the histories and imaginings of the many people who came before them. Consider your own encounters with history in the present day—in the media, in museums, in books, in libraries. What kinds of stories do you hope survive? Are there certain stories you hope don’t survive? What might we gain or lose from the survival or extinction of our stories?
- What can The Bear teach us about grief? Did any of the moments in the novel that speak to grief resonate with you?
- Although The Bear was written for adults and compared by many reviewers to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, readers of all ages have found that it reminds them of beloved books from their childhood such as Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, Scott O'Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Why might this story inspire this reaction? Does the novel echo any of your own favorite childhood books?
- Throughout the novel, the main characters are only referred to as “the man,” “the girl,” “her father,” etc. Why do you think the characters remain unnamed? How might names have changed your reading of the book?
- Much later, as the girl grows old, she uses the books—and the many artifacts contained within her childhood home—as fuel for fire. Though she no longer reads poetry, she still listens for stories and verse in “the whispering of beeches and pine…the song of the gray catbird and the cry of the loon…the slow and susurrant voice of the trees” (p. 218). How might this expand our understanding of stories and storytelling? Who do you think is telling the story of The Bear?
- How did you feel after finishing The Bear? Did the ending surprise you? Was there a particular person in your life you wanted to share it with?
Source material for The Bear discussion questions from Bellevue Literary Press.