Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Beast and the Bear" by Ethel Rohan

"Beast and the Bear" by Ethel Rohan (2011, 3 pages)

Irish Short Story Week Year Two
March 12 to April 11
Emerging Irish Women Writers Week
March 23 to March 29

So far I have posted on excellent stories by Kate Ferguson, Sheila Mannix and EM Reapy.   Yesterday I read three times (and once more just now) a story by Ethel Rohan, "Beast and the Bear"  that simply amazed me by the sheer wonder and beauty of it.  I could not read anything else for a long time after reading this story.    If  Flannery O'Connor and the Grimm Brothers collaborated on a short story then maybe they could come up with something close to "Beast and the Bear".   Normally I am pretty secure in my mind on the my reactions to stories but I wanted to be sure that this story is truly great, maybe I could be overreacting I thought, so I emailed the story to several people whose literary judgments I have great respect for and they all loved the story also.   

In posting on a very short work of fiction you have to be careful to allow other readers to read it without knowing what will happen in the story so I will try to explain why I like this story so much without spoiling the plot.   

The story is told in the first person by a woman living in a wilderness area, one where there are wild bears.
The narration is done is a sort of matter of fact way.   I will quote a bit from the story as I really find the prose style of Rohan hypnotically beautiful
Ethel Rohan
"I wandered away from our family’s picnic and managed to get lost. I walked, called and stumbled, felt my skeleton shake. Every tree looked the same. Everywhere, the same lid of blue-turning-to-gray sky. There seemed no way out, the trees my bars, the sky my dungeon’s ceiling. I heard men shout and an animal’s terrible roar.
Four hunters had cornered the bear against boulders. They stared down their shaky rifles, licked their lips. The bear rose up on his hind legs, a black tower. His roar, his flail from side to side, shook the branches and made the leaves chant.
“On the count of three,” the skinny hunter said.
I raced into the clearing, shouted.
The men whirled around and the bear charged through them, knocked three of the four to the dirt.
That night, safely back at home, the bear beckoned me from my bed and carried me on his back into the woods, thanked me with honey. Many nights over the years, the bear and I played and danced together amongst the trees. We gorged on berries and honey, shaped crowns from twigs, and learned to sign to each other, to tell our stories, secrets and dreams. Until one night, a young woman at last, I didn’t want to leave him, didn’t want to go back to town.
Because I loved Bear, the townspeople said I couldn’t be human. Said I was a beast.  When Bear walked upright, took to wearing overalls, and we set-up house together, they shouted at us on the streets, fired dirt and stones.
Once my baby bump showed, they stole into the woods and set fire to our cottage. They dragged us from our bed and threatened to hang us by our necks, my mother among them. My father begged for mercy and the mob finally allowed us to run, to take a bag each on our backs. They warned us never to return.
We trudged deeper into the woods. The same woods where I’d first met Bear, when as a child I’d rescued him. All the animals also rejected us. The bears cut us with their claws and chased us off. Bear apologized and cried, said I deserved a real man, real love, said he should never have allowed any of this to happen. I pulled his hands from his face and kissed him hard, climbed on top of him.".

There is much more in this story.   It reads like a folk tale.   Susan of You Can Never Have Too Many Books told me that a woman marrying a bear is a story often found in the mythology of American Indians.  I can see this in the story.   It also seems like it could be an Eastern European fable as it makes references to villagers in a town driving people out and a lynch mob.   In spite of these clearly present cultural echos, Rohan has created a marvelous completely original work of art in "Beast and the Bear". 

As I read this I wondered if it was a commentary on marriage somehow, how passion turns to routine, then sometimes violence and indifference. Maybe it is about the alleged civilizing influences of women.    It is also a kind of allegory about the relationship of man to the animal world and a commentary on the way those whose behavior is beyond norms are treated.   It is also, I think, about the need of a patriarchal  society to control and own its women.      As I finished it I was driven to reflect if the woman was the beast either because she acted way outside of normal behavior or because she used an animal for her own purposes.  Beast is self-conscious and Bear is not.  There is a lot to think about in this story.  I think it would generate a lot of discussion in a class room setting.  

You can, and really I am urging you to provide yourself with the wonderful experience, read "Beast and the Bear" online at Bluestem Magazine, a literary journal published since 1966 by the English Department of Eastern Illinois University.

Rohan was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland and now lives in San Francisco, California with her husband and two daughters.

Ethel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say, PANK, 2011 and Cut Through the Bone, Dark Sky Books, 2010, the latter named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by The Story Prize.  She has also published a number of short stories.  

Details about her books can be found on her Amazon page.   Both collections are offered at very fair prices.   

There are links to a number of stories you can read online and more information about her writing career on her webpage.   She has a very interesting blog where she talks about her work.

I asked her who some of her favorite Irish women authors were and here is her response:

"Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite Irish women writers:

Anne Enright
Mary Costello
Órfhlaith Foyle
Nuala O'Faolain
Emma Donoghue
Edna O'Brien
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
Madeleine D'Arcy
Nuala Ní Chonchúir
and Eimear Ryan "

I flat out loved this story, I will never forget it.  I am eager to read more of her work and may do so before the door finally closes on this year's Irish Short Story Week.

If you have any suggestions for Irish Short Story Week Year Two please let me know.  I at first said I would post on seven emerging women writers but I am probably going to expand it to 14, at least.   

Mel u


Suko said...

Thanks for recommending this story to me, Mel. I'm not quite sure what to think about it in terms of deeper meanings--your suggestions are good. I found it to be very imaginative (like a fairy tale ) and well-written.

ds said...

I just read Ms. Rohan's story. "Blown away" does not begin to describe my reaction. Is it allegory, fable, symbol?Does it matter? It is fantastic, in every sense of that word. The lady can write. In layers. It is Poetry, and it is not. I loved it. Thank you for sharing it, and for your insights, which strike me as spot on.