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Bearwalker    by Joseph Bruchac order for
by Joseph Bruchac
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2007 (2007)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Joseph Bruchac's Prologue sets the tone of Bearwalker with a Mohawk folktale about an otgont. Half-human and half-animal, it leaves large bear tracks that switch to human tracks en route, and is considered responsible for disappearances of village people. Lore tells that the otgont was once a human who lusted for the power of a bear, and that the transformation requires the sacrifice of a relative's life. When the creature spoke as a human, the voice was pleasing, but it would smile with its mouth closed to hide the 'long, sharp canine teeth' of a bear. The narrator writes in his journal: 'I'm not bleeding so much now and the writing helps me focus my mind and not fall asleep. I can't allow myself to fall asleep. I have to keep my eyes and ears open. Otherwise he might creep up on me.'

The protagonist of Bearwalker is twelve-year old Baron Braun, who always loved listening to the story during his childhood. Now, he is reluctant to board the school bus for a camping trip in the Adirondacks. It's not because he fears, as he loves and understands bears (whom he believes get a bad rap), plus his Mohawk clan is the Bear. Clan designation is handed down through the mother, but sometimes Baron wishes he could take on the clan of his father - the Turtle, which would provide 'a shell ... where he could just pull in his head and pretend the rest of the world - which can be so mean - doesn't exist'. Baron is an astute boy who goes with life's punches. Small for his age, he's subject to bullying, but doesn't believe in tattling. Baron comes from a U.S. military family, of which he writes, 'There are more Purple Hearts in my family tree than branches.' His dad vanished in Afghanistan two years ago, and his mother is on a tour of duty in Baghdad. He has support from his guardian, wise Grama Kateri, from WW I veteran Uncle Jules, teacher Mr. Wilbur, and librarian Ms. Mars.

Camp Chuckamuck covers 1500 acres among rolling hills, 'tinged with the colors of autumn ... bloodred maples, and yellow beeches flowing like colored patterns in a tapestry across the green unchanging fabric of the spruce and pines and cedars'. As Baron exits the bus, he notices a huge man who appears out of nowhere and disappears just as fast. The man's badge identifies him as Mr. Mack, Camp Director, but there's something strange about the man, the camp attendants, and the events scheduled. There are rumors that developers want to acquire the property to build condominiums. An explosion blocks entrance and exit roads to the camp. Communication and power lines are knocked out, and emergency equipment is inoperable. Baron senses impending doom.

Joseph Bruchac's Bearwalker will delight with well-defined characters; an explicit storyline involving beliefs, courage, unexpected friendship, enduring mystery and suspense; and fascinating information about bear habits and the Six Nations Indian Museum. It teaches that at thirteen, 'You are just old enough to realize that those adults you used to think had all the answers are sometimes just as confused and clueless as you are' and that 'being a good listener can mean the difference between life and death'. Sally Wern Comport's charcoal-shaded sketches lend a hand to the haunting presentation.

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