Monday, December 16, 2013

Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak

Lighthearted World War II stories are hard to come by. The fact that the story is true makes it even more memorable.  A group of Polish soldiers find a cub and raise it at a military camp where its shenanigans and childlike behavior make everyone fall in love with him. Voytek, as he is called, not only covers his eyes with his paws when in trouble but rocks back and forth. When someone is sad, Voytek comforts them. When soldiers need cheering up, he does handstands or drinks beer and eats lit cigarettes to the laughter of those around him. He is a ham and the resident monkey scares him to death. This big 500 pound baby is one that you will fall in love with as well.

The soldiers are a part of a transport unit and while they deliver supplies to the front lines they don't deal directly with the horrors of the battlefield. In one scene, the soldier witnesses the death of two men that leaves him traumatized but it is told after the fact and shows how Voytek helped comfort those around him. The soldiers could take care of him, pamper, and be entertained by his tricks. It took their minds off of the horrors of war and made them laugh at a time when laughter was elusive. Voytek unique skills involved capturing a spy by accident and taking long showers. He also guarded the company's equipment and helped carry munitions. He was raised by humans and acted like one.

Most of the story is Voytek's adventures at camp seeking out food and getting into trouble. There's a funny scene where he entertains a crowd of soldiers on a crane stopping work and being more daring as the men cheered him on. He could turn on showers and loved to drain the camp of all its water sitting in the shower for hours on end. He would snuggle in bed with one of the soldiers that he imprinted with when he was a cub. The thought of sleeping with a 500 pound bears is hard to fathom.

Some of the historical context might need explaining to young readers. There is one part where one of the soldiers is disrespectful toward a corporal. He's mad at him because he doesn't want the animals to come on the ship but the angry man is speaking in Polish and name-calling him the "cross-eyed" corporal because of a lazy eye. Later they make derogatory comments about the Germans and putting a dome over them and their country with their "sauerkraut." There is no attempt to put any of this in perspective and explain how the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles helped catapult Hitler to power. The Germans are the enemy and it is completely one-sided. There is also a lot of drinking and smoking which represents a different historical period when cigarettes were not looked at as a health hazard. There is plenty to talk about in this book. And laugh about.

Good for grade 5 and up.

4 Smileys

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