This is firmly in the myth interpreted in the real world camp and that’s a wonderful thing though fans of stories like The Girl Who Speaks Bear, North Child and The Way Past Winter will find much to love in this tale creaking with myth and magic.
Whereas Burnell fully revealed her hand with the presence of magical creatures in her The Girl With the Shark’s Teeth novel, this one holds its cards far more closely leaving us constantly questioning is Tuesday’s existence, skill on the ice and affinity with Promise nature, nurture or supernatural?
On Marvel’s 5th Birthday he became a local living legend. He was picked up in the jaws of a mother polar bear after he investigated a crying bundle on the frozen river protected by a bear cub and only survived thanks to a missed shot from a local. But no one believes him about the baby.
Years later playing with his hockey team he learns of a travelling ice carnival that features a young girl who ice dances with a polar bear. Fate crashes them together when the carnival owner seeks out his team doctor for care after an accident and Marvel & Tuesday set eyes upon each other and know something happened long ago and time is pressuring them to act again.
For deep down in the most secretive chamber of his heart, Marv knew there had been a child. A child who had demanded to live.
Set in the nearish contemporary past this speaks of a child before mobile phones and screen time, a community in Arctic Canada that leaves backdoors unlocked for anyone to take shelter in a snowstorm, recycles their wrapping paper and is enthralled by hockey. As such the potential of Tuesday becoming a social media sensation after a performance are removed but it is close enough to know that larger communities are uncomfortable with such performances.
But it also speaks of the conditions that people in more temperate zones don’t like to consider, that the climate change issue has been growing for decades in the Arctic regions. These topics are touched upon with gentleness, not judgement or preaching, just soft nods to orientate the plot in a conservationist tone much like the attitude of the Polar Patrol or the attitudes to how otherwise Tuesday & Promise could live.
The folk who live on the Isle of Bears are proud of its name and history… When the first snow falls, the townsfolk leave their doors unlocked and hearts open to welcome everyone. They light fires and head home early to drink hot chocolate and sing songs of ice legends and whisper winter myths while beyond their windows white bears roam the streets.
Belonging and community runs strong throughout this novel.
The community of Ice Bear Island, Marvel’s feeling of belonging with ‘his’ bear & tangled up in the mythology of what happened to him, Coach’s sense of belonging to the island and vice versa despite his feeling of otherness on arrival due to being Black in a predominantly white community.
Like her previous books Cerrie endeavours to choose protagonists with an inclusive eye so here Marv and Mya are mixed race and her female protagonist Tuesday is black or mixed race too as she feels separate and different to the other ‘snow-skinned’ members of the Ice carnival. Indeed the shock of seeing someone who looks like her leads to an immediate affinity with Marv, who is searching for her for other reasons.
Despite the feelings of otherness exacerbated by the abuse and underhandedness by Gretta, the ice carnival itself is a community that rallies around Tuesday as sanctions upon her get tougher and tougher to control her spirit. From secret lessons to genuine affection. Indeed to twist this theme through the lens of the uncomfortable and abusive nature of Gretta is upsetting to read in both her physical control of Promise and her emotional control of Tuesday as she believes the pair ‘belong’ to her and so limits Tuesdays access to the wider world and forbids her any form of education to make her invisible & dependent until she summons the courage and a few skills to break free.
They were two wild creatures who moved through the world together.
Girl and Bear. Bear and Girl
But mostly the book explores the sense of belonging from Tuesday to Promise and how the bond of interdependency has developed, with Tuesday having assumed the mother role to the underdeveloped Promise, so tamed he can’t even hunt a pet goat.
As Tuesday and Marvel tilt back into each other’s orbits we see that despite the ‘romance’ of the child raised at one with a bear, there isn’t room for a child-like polar bear in a rapidly modernising world which begs what will Tuesday do? Whose hearts will Burnell break? Ours? Tuesday’s? Marvel’s? Promise’s? Who else? And can we bear it?
Packing a lot into its slim tome this story meanders through two key events in Marv’s life and across the snowy tundra of the Arctic region. The magical nature of the landscape is not lost in the narrative and Burnell’s lyrical writing takes us off on a journey of the imagination, but like the snowy beauty do not be fooled by the slender book nor the poetic writing, it has depths and dangers and belies a much more serious and meaningful mythopoiea.
Overall a fabulous second novel for middle grade readers, I’m excited to see what Cerrie produces next.
The Ice Bear Miracle by Cerrie Burnell is published by OUP.