Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Bears of Blue River, by Charles Major

(Killing) The Bears of Blue River

Imo, that should be the title.

The summer before my brother entered 5th grade, he trotted to the library, just two short, small-town blocks from our home. His purpose? To check out a book he desperately wanted to read, Charles Major's classic about the adventures of a young boy, Balser, growing up in Southern Indiana.

The Blue River was a huge part of our childhood days. Before the public swimming pool, or the local country club, we spent many weekends, camping on the banks, and swimming in the ol' swimming hole above the dam in the picturesque little river a few miles south of our Corydon, Indiana hometown. I'm sure that's why Tom was so eager to read the book.

Georgia Stockslager Fisher had been head Harrison County librarian since 1911. It would've been around 1951 when my older brother strode, confidently, through the doors, and up to the huge wooden desk to check out the book he'd heard his friends talk about. The great adventure story set, almost, in our own backyard!

Ah, but, not so fast, young man!

Miss Georgie refused to let him check it out. Said it was 5th grade reading level, and since he wouldn't be in 5th grade for another three months, he'd have to come back then. Tom flushed, bright red, turned and walked out of the library, never to return. My mother was incensed! She stormed in to the library and confronted the imposing figure sitting on her all-empowering library throne. To no avail. I don't believe my mother or brother entered those doors again until Miss Georgie retired, or died, or both, and my brother stopped reading, except for mandatory homework selections.

I've held that story in my memory for well over a half century. Always curious to read the book that caused so much controversy. Now that I think about it, I'm not sure my mother would've let me read it. No matter. My elementary school days were spent devouring sports biographies (Aaron to Zaharias), not history.

So, it's 2013, my mother has long passed. So, regrettably, has my brother. But, curiosity got the best of me and I downloaded the Kindle version of The Bears of Blue River.

The story starts innocently enough. Young Balser Brent and his family moved from North Carolina to the banks of the Blue River when he was five or six and his father received eighty acres, at the huge sum of one dollar an acre, in a deed from President James Monroe, no less.

At the time of the story, Balser is thirteen or fourteen, with a nine-year-old brother and a one-year-old sister. During a trip to the "drift" to catch a mass of fish (yes, the book says, mass, although I wonder if it's one of many misprints in the Kindle version), the trouble begins with Balser's first bear encounter. Bam! One bear down, a couple dozen to go, I reckon.

Before you think I'm a squeamish, gun-hating, Peta-lover, I do understand, especially in the 1800s, that killing was a necessary way of life, for food, clothing, and protection. In most cases, Balser and his friends did just that. From the legendary fire bear, who blazed up when he was angry, to deer, wolves, fox, and beaver, no animal was sacred, or without purpose.

I was, however troubled when a male wolf, looking after two cubs was killed, and then the mother was, subsequently lured out of the den, and shot, too. The only reason given for killing the pair was the boys wanted the cubs as pets. During another gruesome scene, one of Balsers friends is burned alive, along with the fire bear mentioned above. The final killing scenes includes a fawn and its mother. The fawn is shot in order to lure the mother to its side. Bam! Another one bites the dust. The coup de grĂ¢ce, an especially brutal fox-trapping scene, which I won't describe, ends the book on a sickening note, at least for this reader.

So, back to Miss Georgie. I have no doubt her authoritarian manner instigated my brother's reading reluctance, at least for a few years. I wonder, however, how his townie, wouldn't kill a bug, psyche would've been affected by Balser and his, kill anything that moves, mentality.

Guess I'll never know. While I don't agree with the reasoning, or the method, the librarian may have had a point.

I appreciate the historical nature of the book, and the vivid pictures the author paints of early Southern Indiana history, but am disturbed by the fact that killing is portrayed as easy, frequent, and with no regrets. Not my kinda book, nor, I suspect, my brother's.

Thankfully, my mother continued to let me check out books, even under the watchful eye of Miss Georgie, but only when my beloved aunt, Gertrude, became head librarian, did my mother go back through those massive doors.

I'd recommend The Bears of Blue River, for sixth grade and beyond, and only then if the reader is comfortable with killing, and the raw brutality of living in the wilds of a Southern Indiana woods.

For a more innocent slice of Southern Indiana life, read, Cynthia's Attic!