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Why the classic Canadian novel Bear remains controversial — and relevant

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Marian Engel’s 1976 novel Bear, which tells the story of a relationship between a woman and her ursine lover, has been called one of the most controversial books in the history of Canadian literature.

But experts say the Governor General Award-winning book is also one of the most daring and relevant examples in the Canadian canon, deftly mixing comedic scenes with important themes such as colonialism and our relationship to the wilderness. One expert says it also touches on the issue of Western appropriation of Indigenous stories.

“Every once in a while, it seems to rise to the surface and then they read it as if it were smutty or erotic or shocking. But that is not why it has enduring value,” said Aritha van Herk, a novelist and English professor at the University of Calgary.

“It teaches the reader … to re-examine their own preconceptions about women, about nature, and about Canada itself.… And that means, I think, it will last for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

Bear is the story of a young librarian and archivist named Lou, who is asked to help catalogue the library of an old manor in Northern Ontario. Left mostly alone to her own devices, Lou soon encounters a bear living on the manor property.

She gradually pursues an emotional — and at times sexual — relationship with the bear.

From GG winner to internet meme

Bear most recently resurfaced in 2014 — decades after Engel’s death in 1985 — thanks in part to a post on the photo-sharing website Imgur.

A user posted a picture of the Bantam Seal edition of the book, which features a topless woman being embraced from behind by a large brown bear, as well as excerpts of the book’s steamier scenes.

“You have some explaining to do, Canada,” the poster wrote incredulously.

It received more than a million views, reviving interest in the book. Later that year, publisher McLelland & Stewart issued a brand-new print run — with new cover art.

“We wanted something that was smart and captured the eroticism of the book, but that didn’t have the campy look of the one that went viral,” a representative from the publisher told industry magazine Quill & Quire.

Upon its original release in 1976, Engel and the publisher received some angry letters. But it also earned glowing reviews from critics, and it became a bestseller that spring and summer.

“William French in The Globe … called it a serious piece of fiction — the best thing she’s done, challenging and provocative,” said Nick Mount, English lit professor at the University of Toronto and author of Arrival: The Story of CanLit.

It also won the Governor General’s award that year, when the committee who chose the winners included Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler and Alice Munro.

Beyond Bear, Engel was a prolific novelist and essayist, and in 1973, became a founding member and first chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada.

“She was received as a writer who was daring and bold,” said Christl Verduyn, an English professor at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick and author of Lifelines: Marian Engel’s Writings.

‘Why the bear?’

When inevitably asked by peers and interviewers on her inspiration for the book, Engel remained furtive.

“Why the bear? What I’m saying, I guess — I mean, why not a crocodile?” CBC’s Peter Gzowski asked Engel in 1976.

“Well, I do know, but I’m not telling, OK? It’s been a personal theme for many, many years,” she replied.