At the heart of The Woman Who Married a Bear is the Tlingit myth about a woman who falls in love with a bear. They have two children: each half-bear and half-human. The bear feels threatened by the woman's brothers and tells her they must move deeper into the wilderness. The woman has her children kill and eat the bear.
The actual meaning is way over my head, but then I've never been great with parables. Maybe it has something to do with wilderness versus civilization, man versus beast. An old Indian lady tells Alaskan private eye Cecil Younger this myth, and I'm relieved to report that he doesn't understand it any better than I did. The old lady looks at him in disgust and says, "I knew you wouldn't believe it. No matter what you tell a white person it all goes to the same place."
Nonetheless, she hires Cecil to investigate the murder of her son, Louis Victor. Louis was a big-game hunter and a capital "A" alpha male, killed by Alvin Hawkes, a crazy little guy who worked for Louis. Even though Hawkes was convicted and sentenced for the crime, the old lady doesn't believe this version of the facts.
Cecil is a well liked if not well respected private investigator in Sitka. Why he is not respected has to do with being an unrepentant drunk and not going into law like his sainted father, the judge. Why he's well liked becomes apparent as he narrates this story. He is bookish, tolerant and relentlessly curious; a seeker of the truth with enough sense to know that truth is a slippery commodity.
Truth -- and the elusive nature of it -- is big in this story, and the author, John Straley, has much to say about how the threads of story and fact. are woven together. Or, as Cecil tells us, "If cops collect the oral history of a crime, I gather folklore. And people who have set themselves up to be the judge rarely accept folklore as the whole truth, unless it's their own story they're telling."
Cecil interviews Louis's widow, who asks him, "How do you expect to find the whole truth for this old Indian woman when you don't know what the whole truth would feel like to her?"
He replies, "I probably will never know what the whole truth feels like. But I'm a curious guy, and I have only one choice and that is to keep going forward and asking questions."
Cecil keeps asking his questions even after it becomes increasingly dangerous to do so. In the end he's satisfied: "I kept my peace. Most old stories don't have anything to do with facts; they're the box that all the facts came in."
The Woman Who Married a Bear has much to say about how to find truth amongst the threads of story and fact. The story is told with great humor and authority -- and enough Alaskan details you'll need an extra sweater when you read it. The ending circles back on the bear myth in a way that feels organic. But the novel's greatest strength is Cecil Younger. He's my kind of guy. Now, if he'd only stop drinking so much...
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By John Straley
Soho Press, copyright 1992.