This is a deeply spiritual story in a completely Pagan vein and one with lessons about the power of instinct and the connection between the artificial world of civilization and the animal nature from which civilization springs.
It’s set in rural Washington State (not too far from where the author lives in real life) and commences as a bear is reported to attack a woman and her dog. The main character and her dog encounter a second bear, and the instinctive antipathy between dog and bear drives many of the events, as does the fear of civilized man for a big, powerful wild animal. But the story is far more nuanced than any surface accounting of the plot can express.
Diana, the main character, although highly intelligent, is herself very much a human animal, with uncommonly few layers of civilized distancing from her human animal instincts. She works as a student nurse at a nearby hospital, where she must become mechanistic and passionless, suppressing her humanity in the paradoxical course of work as a healer. The small community where she lives with her mother and stepfather is divided over the question of whether to pave the road that runs through it, which is a private road not maintained by the county or the state – in other words, on whether to bring another layer of civilization and taming to the wilderness that it almost still is.
Instinct and animal nature are neither vilified nor romanticized here. We find that they can senselessly kill. We find that they can save life. We find compassion in unexpected places, and deep layers of emotional undergrowth lying beneath the emergent veneer of human society. Magic is done in attempt to save a bear, and magic happens in the relation of bear and human. One is reminded that the natural world is not eliminated by our technology and our civilized ways, but remains under the surface like the tangled vegetation of the western Washington rain forest. (I recall from my own years living in Seattle how it always seemed that the city was under siege by the green wilderness, ready to split the concrete and devour the buildings if it woke up sufficiently, and that was the big city, the stronghold of civilization insofar as western Washington has any. In rural areas of this wet, wonderful wild, the sense is much stronger.)
There is a fantasy element that one sometimes finds, most commonly in children’s fantasy, and that might be called animal anthropomorphism; the talking beasts in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales are a good example. A Bear Tale is, if anything, the exact opposite: a reminder that human beings are also animals, and that communication takes place on deeper levels than words.
A Bear Tale is short (novella length) and, in e-book format, is free. The author, Christi Overturf Killien, develops similar themes (and others) in her wonderful blog “Farmlet,” which you can find here. In the distant past, she wrote and published children’s books with some success. One hopes that she will find the time in her busy life to write more and longer fiction, because she has done a fine job here of developing this theme in spare brushstrokes.
A Bear Tale (e-book) free at Smashwords
A Bear Tale (print) at Amazon