The Summer of the Bear

The suspicious death of a high-ranking British diplomat creates whispers of treason and spies; everyone seems to have lost faith in Nicky Fleming except his young son in Bella Pollen’s Cold War mystery – The Summer of the Bear.

After his untimely death, Nicky’s family flees to a remote Scottish island in the Hebrides for the safety of old family surroundings and seclusion from the harsh innuendo of the diplomatic gossips.  Letty, Nicky’s wife is tortured by his incriminating death-bed letter; Georgie, his seventeen year old daughter harbors a secret uncovered when she accompanied her father to East Berlin; Alba, fourteen, is angry at the world and her father for deserting them.  Only eight year old Jamie believes his father will keep his promise and come back to tell his family the truth.

As the family copes with their grief – each in their own way – a bear that has escaped from a one-man circus act appears intermittently in the action.  Pollen assigns chapters to the thoughts of each: Letty, Georgie, Alba, Jamie – and the bear.  Jamie believes the bear is his father in a new form, and Pollen allows the bear’s thoughts, its interest in the family, and its protective instincts toward the children to make the connection a possibility.

Place is important to the story – from the watchful paranoia at the Wall dividing Berlin to the proper stiffness of the British diplomatic corps in West Berlin, to finally, the wild Outer Hebrides.  Pollen spent her childhood summers in the Scottish Highlands and her descriptions of the raw beauty of the cliffs, the birds, and the sea places you there in that magical yet forbidding place.

I was caught up in the intrigue; was Nicky’s death murder, suicide, accident?  Did he betray his family and country?  Was he a double agent?  Pollen maintains the suspense while demonstrating how differently each character deals with the grief and uncertainty as well as with each other.   Although the dramatic ending is neatly tied with the imagination and loyalty of the young boy, my satisfaction came with the possibility – the belief – that the bear really was the savior.   More than a mystery or an examination of family relationships and loyalties, The Summer of the Bear is a sweet comfort I enjoyed.

The Moment

Fifty years ago in August, 1961, the border between East and West Germany was sealed and the new Wall kept anyone from leaving East Berlin.   This barrier to freedom stood until November, 1989.  In The Moment, Douglas Kennedy creates an event that changed the life of Thomas Nesbitt in Berlin in the 1980s when the Wall was still up.  Nesbitt, a travel writer, recently divorced, receives a package that forces him to remember his earlier years in Berlin.

Kennedy methodically wallows through over a hundred pages revealing his own theories on the writing process, true love, and the war – wisdom that seems mostly trite.   Not until the flashback with Nesbitt in Berlin twenty years earlier in the 1980s does the action start, with the narrative becoming a mix of historical fiction, romance, and spy thriller.  As Nesbitt relives his time in Berlin with Petra Dussman, an East Berlin translator for Radio Liberty who escaped to the West, his descriptions of a time and place that existed not that long ago are a window to living through the Cold War.

“The tension of being in a largely forbidden place, where the undercurrent police state paranoia was…tangible. East Berlin: the bogeyman of all Cold War nightmares.”

Petra’s backstory, when finally revealed after she and Nesbitt have become lovers,

Berlin Wall

confirms the horrors hidden behind the Wall. The descriptions of guilt by association as well as incarceration with physical and mental torture are compelling to read – the espionage only adds to the fervor.

Kennedy divides the story into five parts:  Nesbitt facing his demons in a loveless marriage; the flashback that slowly builds the historical snapshot of the Cold War; the climax with love, betrayal, coerced patriotism, and regret; the big reveal – not so hard to predict – when Petra tells her version of the story. Kennedy unnecessarily repeats too much of the story already told – until it diverts into an unexpected twist.

In the end, Kennedy returns Nesbitt to the present and ties up all the loose ends. Checkpoint Charlie has vanished, no traces of the Wall remain, Petra leaves a final letter, and Nesbitt makes an investment in the future.   In his last words, Nesbitt invokes “the moment…that tells us who we are, what we search for, what we so want to unearth…”  In Nesbitt’s life, Petra was his moment.

Did I like this book? Hard to say.   Yes – for the history, the romance, the bits of spy thriller.   But – over 500 pages – too long a moment.  The story could have been reduced to about 300 by omitting much of the repetition and clichéd observations on life and love.

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