A man and his daughter are the last two surviving humans on earth in this stellar post-apocalyptic new novel by Andrew Krivak. There is no desperate, bleak wandering through torched barren land. No question of where to get food. They live comfortably in a timber house halfway up a mountain where, at the summit, the mother is buried. As the daughter matures, the father teaches her to make a fishing spear and a bow and arrow; to tan a deer hide and decipher the brilliant night sky. He teaches her to read and write from old family books kept on a shelf from another time.
That was how, without having to leave the peace and quiet of the mountain, she learned so much about what had been and why it had been that way, from tales recounted in old words of an old time on old pieces of paper bound between cracked and fraying covers.
The father tells his daughter stories that inform how to respect all living things. And when a bear appears near the house, he tells her bears “travel a long way to do good, for their own or anther,” foretelling her future.
In this imagined end of modern civilization, author Andrew Krivak resets the Earth to its Edenic beginning. He lures us into its possibility with vivid details of how the girl and her father live by the seasons, the land and the challenging requirements of patience and trust. The descriptions offer just enough of the elements to provoke curiosity and hold our interest — and with prose that by meditative precision and lyric simplicity echoes this pure world.
Eventually the father and daughter must journey east to the ocean to procure salt. They encounter a place of buried walls from past civilization. As the father scavenges among them, he’s fatally bitten by an unseen creature. A bear guides the grief-stricken girl home. In a frightening incident, a puma appears to save her life. She can understand the puma as she does the bear, who at one time explains the how and why of it.
…he said that long ago all the animals knew how to make the sounds the girl and her father used between them. But it was the others like her who stopped listening, and so the skill was lost. As for the bear, he learned it from his mother, who learned it from her mother. Not all animals had the range of voice that could be heard, he said, but all living things spoke, and perhaps the real question was how she could understand him.
It’s correct to categorize this gem as a fable, but that alone grossly overlooks the sophisticated theological lining. In so many ways this story reaches much deeper than a moral lesson by providing a lens of hope. We do not know why humanity disappeared, and we do not need to know because the provisions of the earth and its resources now are enough.
The novel ends with the girl as an old woman living outdoors. We understand she’s survived because of all she learned from her father and the bear. There’s nothing surprising except the powerful impact of this slim, exquisite novel revealing the wisdom of the natural world. “We did not guess its essence until after a long time” is a quote in the book’s beginning pages by Ralph Waldo Emerson heralding the truth to come.
Andrew Krivak is the author of The Sojourn, a National Book Award finalist that captured attention for its moving World War I story and unique focus on the Italian front. For me, it remains one of my best reads of all times. The Sojourn and The Bear are published by Bellevue Literary Press. A version of this review was broadcast in central Ohio on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM.