For readers who love inspirational stories, complex female characters, and historical fiction

Bear Medicine: A Novel - G. Elizabeth Kretchmer

I have read two of Elizabeth Kretchmer’s books before. The Damnable Legacy (you can check my review here) and Women on the Brink (check the review here) and enjoyed them. When I was informed that the author had published a new book, I had to check it out.

Once again, Kretchmer focuses on issues that relate to women’s lives and also to the environment and to human beings’ place in the world. The story is narrated by two women, Brooke and Anne, in the first-person. Although both women have a lot in common (both are married and not terribly happy in their marriages, although they are not fully aware of it or at least they haven’t acknowledged it to themselves yet, and they both love nature), they are separated by a hundred and forty years. Whilst Brooke lives in our present, Anne convinces her husband to visit Yellowstone not long after the Park is established, seriously underestimating the risks. Both women suffer because of their decisions (Brooke is mauled by a grizzly bear and is seriously injured, and Anne ends up alone and defenseless without experience on surviving in the wild) and are helped by other women. And in both cases, these seemingly terrible decisions end up totally changing their lives. The book is part contemporary women’s fiction and part historical fiction, and an inspirational read.

Both characters are sympathetic because of the terrible circumstances they find themselves in, although they are not the standard heroines that suddenly and almost magically become enlightened and proficient at everything. They sometimes show little insight into their real situations, can be naïve, do little to help themselves, moan, and take one step forward and two steps back. If anything, Anne, who married young and has little experience of the world, seems to take to the new situation and accept Meg’s teachings more easily, although it must have been a bigger shock to her and farther away from her everyday experience. The society of her time was also more prejudiced, and the fact that she becomes best friends with a Native American woman is much more of a leap of faith than Brooke’s friendship with Laila and her confused feelings about the younger woman. But Brooke has also been victimised (even though it takes her quite a while to accept that) for much longer, has two grown-up children, and therefore has much more to lose. It is understandable that she struggles more and it takes her longer to fully embrace her new reality. I think most women will recognize themselves in one of the characters, either the narrators or their friends and helpers, and feel personally involved in the novel.

The writing is beautifully descriptive and there are very touching moments, some because of the extremes of emotion and suffering, and some because of the moments of clarity and insight that the love of the women and their cooperation with each other brings them. The author has done her research (she explains her process at the end and also acknowledges her sources) and I learned much about the birth of Yellowstone and the Indian Wars by reading this book.

There are serious and current subjects discussed in the novel (abuse [mental, physical, and sexual], rape, drug abuse, mental illness, nature and environment, the protection of wild animals, politics, parent-child relationship), there are adventures and risky situations, secrets, betrayal, and plenty of love. Although most readers will figure out soon enough the connection between the two women, we care enough for both characters and their adventures to keep reading and hoping we will be right about the end. And yes, the ending is empowering and positive too.

An emotional book (yes, I did cry), an enlightened book, and also a realistic book, that shows us some women who are not the perfect heroines, all powerful and knowing, but who make mistakes, hesitate, don’t know what to do for the best, and can be annoying and irritating at times, but who become stronger and learn about themselves by joining with other women and choosing to work together.

An inspiring read and a book that I recommend to women (and men) who enjoy multi-dimensional characters. It will also delight people who love historical fiction, in particular, the Indian Wars, and readers interested in Native American tradition and mythology. Another great book by a writer I will keep my eye on.