Indigenous peoples have been on my mind over the past several months. Indeed, I read books by American Indian authors with awe. In this darkening time of the year the Indian monsters join those of European descent in my imagination. The wendigo has become somewhat popular in recent years but the bearwalk, or bearwalker, remains obscure. Although a novel for young readers, Joseph Bruchac’s Bearwalker is a genuine horror story and the author is of American Indian descent. It took someone giving it to me as a present (mainly because it was for young readers) to get me to pick it up. I’m glad I did.
As might be expected for young readers there’s some blood but not gratuitous violence. There are skillful twists in the novel and Bruchac knows how to put his protagonist on a cliff, as the old adage goes, then throw stones at him. In this case, Baron, a thirteen-year-old Mohawk boy, is tormented by the bullies at his school. Befriended by a respected teacher, he attends a three-day camping trip to the Adirondacks where a family dispute has led to a plan to terrorize the camp and force its sale. The plan is to make it the scene of a mass murder with the school children present. It’s here that Baron is able to demonstrate his worth to his classmates by escaping from the would-be killers and bringing help.
Throughout the story bears feature. There’s some question as to whether there is a real bearwalker present, but the idea is there. As with literature for young readers there’s some protective layering—no sex or strong language, for instance—but violence, at least in intent, is clearly there. It is a very good story with suspense and excitement enough to keep even an adult horror fan going. The main reason I’d had my eye on the book was to learn how the bearwalker might appear in it. And also to see the story told from a First Nations’ point of view. Like Baron in the story, American Indians I read aren’t aggressively angry about the way their people have been treated (which they certainly have a right to be). There’s nevertheless a sadness and inevitability there. Still, there’s also a pride in being part of an ancient and surviving culture. There’s also quite a bit of symbolism in the story; Baron’s parents both proudly serve in the military, despite what the nation has done to their people. And more subtle indications occur here and there that mainly adults would notice. Although for young readers this is a real horror story, but one with a conscience.