Moon Bear – Gill Lewis
I can’t remember how I came across this book, but I am so pleased I did. Sometimes there is a stigma around young adult novels or even children’s novel. I have never been put off by such a thing. If the story is good and you can root for the characters then sometimes it is exactly what you are after.
When twelve-year-old Tam is sent to work at a bear farm in the city, he has never felt so alone. He hates seeing the cruel way the bears are treated, but speaking up will mean losing his job. And if he can't send money home, how will his family survive? When a sick cub arrives at the farm, Tam secretly nurses it back to health and they develop an unbreakable bond. Tam swears to return his beloved cub to the wild, but how will they ever find a way to be free? Deeply moving and powerful, Moon Bear is an unforgettable story of compassion, hope, and bravery against overwhelming odds.
I loved this book. I devoured it in less than two days. I just simply could not put it down. At just over 300 pages it is on the shorter side, but it tells the story it needs to tell without drawing out any scenes unnecessarily. Gill Lewis could easily have been tempted to go for maximum empathy in describing in detail some of the horrible things that happen in this book, but she instead opts for the “less if more” mantra and it works a charm.
The book focuses on Tam, a boy who lives with his family in the mountains until they are relocated by the General Chan. Tam is promised a better life, with electricity, a school and even a village TV. The promises are half-truths though and when events go from bad to worse, Tam is forced to leave his family and work at a bear farm in the city.
Tam is hugely likeable. He is undoubtedly a victim but he does not bemoan his fate. That does not mean he accepts it either. He is sensible enough to keep his mouth shut and head down when needed but also rebels in his own way. His friendship with the bears and the way he cares for them is truly touching.
What I liked most is that Lewis focuses on Tam’s relationship with one of the bears. Tam recognises there is little he can do for the other bears but when a young ill cub (Sook-dli) arrives, he takes it upon himself to nurse the bear back to health. The bond the two forge is both tender and heart warming. The two souls are linked by the same lot in life in that they have had little choice or say as to what happens to them.
However, to just comment on Tam’s interactions with the bears would do the book a disservice. Everyone Tam converses with is affected by his behaviour in some way, mostly for the better but sometimes not. The only character that is not well-drawn is Tam’s supervisor Assang. He is your typical card board cut out caricature and is not really needed in the story. All the other characters are well portrayed and within a few short pages, Lewis establishes strong links between Tam and other characters such as his Granddad, his Ma and Kham.
In regards to the plot, there is nothing too surprising about it. A lot of what happens to Tam is not very original and nothing you couldn’t predict if you really sat down and thought about it. The beauty of the novel is that whilst reading the novel none of this occurred to me. I was so enthralled by the prose and swept up in Tam’s life that I was too busy enjoying the book. I had never heard of bear milking though and it has truly opened my eyes to another of mankind’s atrocities inflicted on animals.
I said at the start of this book that this is classed as a children’s book. With all that happens to Tam it certainly does not read like one. With a children’s book (as true with a lot of adult books) the usually all of the plot points are wrapped up or loose ends tied. Gill Lewis does not pander to her audience. Sometimes in life there are loose ends and with one character in particular, she uses their actions to teach Tam this lesson. It is infuriating but realistic at the same time.
The ending is great. Normally I like dark endings, but I also recognise when a book needs to end in a certain way. I will not reveal which was this one goes, but to me it was the perfect ending.
My rating: 9.3