Let me say right off the bat that I loved reading Bear Season. It’s the story of a young first-generation Polish-American boy named Chester who’s struggling to grow up without a father in 1950s Detroit. The only male role model he has is an alcoholic uncle who regales him with tales of the preternaturally talented bear who served with his unit a decade earlier in World War II. Teetering on the verge of disbelief in the bear and the mythology surrounding it, Chester embarks on a road trip with his uncle in an effort to help him make peace with his painful, war-torn past. What follows is a heartfelt tale that works both as a grail quest and a coming of age story highlighting the power of storytelling and exploring the relationship between the past and the ever-moving present.
Throughout the novel, author Bernie Hafeli demonstrates both a strong instinct for storytelling and a keen understanding of the human heart. His eleven-year-old protagonist offers the perfect balance of innocence and experience — embarrassed yet protective as he is with respect to his Polish heritage and his uncle’s outlandish tales, torn as he is between wishing to see the world and longing for the comforts of home, and ambivalent as he is about lying to his mother to protect his drunken uncle from her unrelenting distrust. The world from Chester’s perspective is full of contradictions, and much of the narrative explores the ways in which the young protagonist learns how to deal with them on his way to adulthood. Life, it turns out, rarely presents cut-and-dried answers to any of our questions, so the best we can do is keep moving forward with the stories that allow us to make sense of the chaos.
Given its title and the centrality of a bear to the novel’s plot, it’s probably no surprise that Bear Season brought to mind the works of John Irving, whose own fascination with bears has made novels like Setting Free the Bears, Hotel New Hampshire, and Last Night in Twisted River (among others) so memorable. Additionally, the novel’s focus on young people of relatively recent Eastern European extraction brought to mind Daniel Torday’s The Sensualist, a gem from last year published by Nouvella Books. Yet Bernie Hafeli ultimately writes in a voice all his own — one, needless to say, that I hope to hear more from. All told, a moving, playful, and memorable novel.
For a sample of Bernie Hafeli’s work, check out his short story, “Don’t Ask,” at Ampersand Review!