Wild and woolly bear tales anchor McMillion’s effort
Mark of the Grizzly
By ANDREA BARNETT
Make no mistake about it: Scott McMillion is a darn good journalist, and his years of experience covering Yellowstone National Park for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle undoubtedly inform his first book, Mark of the Grizzly.
But the daily grind seems to have taken a toll on McMillion, and his account of grizzly maulings suffers because of it. McMillion's purpose in writing Mark of the Grizzly, he says, was threefold. First, he says, he hoped to tell some good stories. In this, he succeeds. While the plot of each chapter gets a little repetitive (person goes into woods, stumbles upon bear, gets chewed up), most accounts are chilling, presented in vividly bone-crushing detail.
But in his other goals, he fails.
The book is presented secondarily as an educational resource. It's subtitled "True Stories of Recent Bear Attacks and the Hard Lessons Learned." The book jacket calls it a "blend of lesson and terror." McMillion has drawn praise from the likes of outdoor-adventure writer Tim Cahill and novelist Jim Harrison for the lessons contained therein.
"This book should be obligatory for back country travelers who wander into the land of the grizzlies," Harrison quips, "for it must be considered theirs or they will vanish."
To the extent that McMillion's stories scare the bejeezus out of readers, Harrison is accurate. The fewer people wandering around the backcountry, the fewer people will get eaten, the fewer bears will be destroyed.
But as a primer for staying out of trouble, McMillion's book is rather ambiguous. In each case, he talks with survivors, cops and biologists. All get their chance to speculate about the reasons for each attack. All accounts are reprinted unchallenged by McMillion. The result: pepper spray has saved lives, but might make some situations worse. Guns are helpful, but the sense of security they give is false.
Generally speaking, you can't outfight a griz, but at least one couple may have survived by throwing punches. I found myself wanting McMillion's analysis, however, his wisdom. But whatever conclusions the veteran reporter has found during his years on the job, he keeps them to himself.
Thirdly, McMillion told me in a recent conversation, he wanted to engender sympathy for the bears. It's also a theme he hits on early and frequently, in the book, starting with his introduction:
"Killing all the grizzlies, as the swinish among us call for, would be a simple thing. We've got helicopters and night-vision optics and high-powered weapons that would make fairly short work of it," he writes. "Keeping grizzlies alive, keeping them healthy and numerous and letting them act like wild bears, that's the hard part.
"It takes work and sacrifice and wisdom."
While McMillion's sympathies are obvious, as are those of his sources (many of whom are quick to take the blame), the book ultimately is more about people than grizzlies-a fact that McMillion acknowledges. "Bears are an enigma. Even if they could speak English we probably couldn't understand them," he told me when I pointed this out.
"People are easier to figure out, at least from our perspective, so that's true-it's more a book about people."
Not that the stories aren't interesting in a morbid sort of way. There's likewise a great deal of stunning stupidity in the book; the most astounding is the story of the Yellowstone tourist who approached a mother griz with cubs feeding near Obsidian Creek last summer, told through the eyes of a Park Service volunteer who happened to witness the incident.
"[The volunteer] yelled at the man from the road, but he either ignored her or didn't hear her and moved steadily closer to the cub. She followed him into the old burn, trying to make him stop. But she couldn't catch him, and that's when he did something an intelligent person wouldn't do to a strange dog in the city.
"'He just reached out and touched it, like if you were touching an animal in a petting zoo,'" the volunteer reported. Next, McMillion says, "[t]he cub scampered, its mother came uncorked, and the idiot walked away."
Where his reporting skills are put to good use, McMillion is flawless. He walks his readers through each of the mauling scenes, describing the layout of campsites and trails. In McMillion's prose, the victims are made real through facts about their lives before and-for the lucky ones-after their bear encounters.
But in allowing his sources to set the parameters, McMillion leaves nagging questions. When in the first chapter rangers in Glacier National Park say they had to kill a human-eating sow and her two cubs, McMillion relays this with the perfunctory objectivity. The only question was whether these were the bears to kill, not whether feeding off a human carcass was worth a death sentence for the cubs, which hadn't participated in the killing.
And as a result, McMillion's book falls short of being more than well-researched collection of curious tales strung together with the loose theme of bear predation. The whole barely equals the sum of its parts. It's a thin line he walks here; bear attacks are relatively rare. After all, of the hundreds of encounters people have with grizzlies, very few end up badly. In most instances, all parties walk away uninjured.
Yet to read McMillion's book is to begin looking over your shoulder with more paranoia than perhaps is warranted; in my case, within days of finishing the book, violent bears began frequenting my dreams. Still, it is precisely that potential for violence-no matter how rarely realized-that McMillion says makes grizzlies so fascinating.
"The potential for bear maulings is what makes them so compelling," he says. "The fact that bears can be dangerous have put them in the collective human imagination forever."
Morrison’s Paradise falls short of heaven
Alfred K. Knopf
By SUSAN MINOGUE
Toni Morrison's latest novel, Paradise, should begin with a warning: Beware of excess. Morrison has set up a patently false situation in her new book to explore some of American culture's most persistent questions about race, as well as broader issues about love, God and family.
In a recent PBS interview, Morrison explained that her first novel since winning the Nobel Prize closes a trilogy begat by Beloved in 1987. That Pulitzer Prize-winning book, concerned with the excesses of love, told the story of an escaping slave who kills her daughter to keep her free. In 1992's Jazz, the second installment, a man's obsessision drives him to violence, and finally, in Paradise, a Godly devotion nearly ruins a town.
Paradise begins and ends in fits of violence. Spanning nearly a century, the novel begins in 1890, when 158 ex-slaves and their families, looking for safety, leave their homes in Mississippi and Louisiana and head west to Oklahoma Territory.
Under the cover of pre-dawn, nine heavily-armed black men storm the Convent, a house inhabited by four unarmed women. This band of "8-rock black" men (a coal-mining term denoting deep blackness) are denied entrance to the communities of the Choctaw, white, even of other blacks, because of their complexion.
Driven by this "disallowal," they settle their own town, Haven. In 1949, to preserve the purity of their community, 15 Haven families move deeper into Oklahoma and settle Ruby, pop. 360, where the novel is set. Despite the violence, the driving force behind the novel stems from the disallowal which "explained why neither the founders of Haven or their descendents could tolerate anybody but themselves."
All is not well in paradise. By 1976, the novel's present day, Ruby, like its predecessor, Haven, begins to unravel under the strain of the outside world.
Strife between the town and its youngest generation, who begin to take notice of the '60s-Vietnam, Martin Luther King and free love-threatens to undo the community. A woman is knocked down the stairs by her daughter. Brothers shoot each other. Women disappear. Ruby's male founders scapegoat the women at the Convent-"17 miles from town and 90 miles from the nearest O for operator and the nearest badge."
Paradise is circular: The first and last scenes complete each other. The rest of the novel is flashback. Each of the nine chapters, like biblical stories, are layered and embellished. All are wrought with loss and triumph.
Morrison claims she "provide[s] places and spaces so that the reader can participate in the work." But the weakness of the narrative is its opaque quality. In providing this space-many of the chapters begin with unnamed characters, musing over disconnected events-Morrison loses her readers.
Critics moreover contend that Morrison's characters are too symbolic, ideological, and that her politics overrun her craft.
In response, Morrison foregrounds race in Paradise. The novel begins, "They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time." It remains unclear which of the women in the Convent is white. Morrison says she "wanted the readers to wonder... until [they] understood that their race doesn't matter. [Race] is the least reliable information you can have.... It tells you next to nothing."
As if to underscore her point, when asked whether she would write about something other than black people, Morrison replied, "Would anyone have asked James Joyce when he was going to stop writing about Irish people?"
Though her narrative may leave us wanting, Morrison excels at breathing life into idiosyncratic, flawed characters, such as Mavis, whose infant twins suffocate in a hot car as she shops for hot dogs, and Patricia, the only character who articulates the town's insider-outsider mentality.
Even as such characters come to life, many are stereotypically portrayed along gender lines. Ruby is full of rational, rigid men, while the women are nuturing, mysterious and "other." Such an oppositional male-female binary is confining.
Perhaps Paradise's flaws do not lie with the writing so much as with the attempt to build a heaven on Earth.
Morrison understands that constructing a utopia is a flawed project, but seeing why they fail can be instructive. Utopias lay bare societal structures, telling us who we are and how far we have yet to go. Morrison leaves us with our, and her own, imperfection:
"How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it."