Soldier Bear is the story of the bear Voytek who became both mascot and comrade-in-arms to the men of the Second Polish Corps during World War II. Caught outside their homeland due to the war, 120 Poles joined up with the British and became part of the Allied invasion of Italy and the fight to liberate Europe from the Nazis. “Private” Voytek became a valued member of their company: in addition to improving morale, he once caught a spy in their camp and even helped carry artillery shells. For this latter action, he was immortalized forever as the emblem of the 2nd Polish Corps.
The book begins strongly with an amusing anecdote, told from the bear’s point-of-view, about Voytek wandering into the women’s camp, terrifying the women and upsetting their laundry; then the narrative voice asserts itself: “The bear had at least ten pairs of undies on top of his head. One pair was hanging from his snout and he had a bra around his neck . . .” (9). Middle-Elementary readers will howl with laughter and be instantly hooked.
The company came to adopt a menagerie of animal companions including Dottie the dalmation and a mischievous monkey named Kaska who liked to ride on the back of another dog named Stalin. But Voytek’s adventures are the most interesting, and the other animals are minor characters who sometimes take up too much of the narrative—although juvenile readers, the intended audience, would likely enjoy it.
Author Bibi Dumon Tak describes her writing style as “blend[ing] literary technique with fact to produce stories that are both compelling and accurate” — in other words, creative nonfiction. Then in the next sentence, she indicates that Soldier Bear is a novel. Cataloging-in-Publication calls it fiction, and juvenile fiction is where my local library has shelved it. We all would have done better to call it creative nonfiction, slap a nonfiction call number on it [940; World War, 1939-1945] and leave it there.
In structure, the book reads like a traditional biography—bearography—birth, or early life and adoption by the Polish Company; life, including the anecdotes mentioned above and others; and death, or at least farewell, as he goes on to live his post-war life in the Edinburgh Zoo. As fiction, quite frankly, it lacks dramatic tension and a strong plot arc. Its scenes are chronological; there is no big climax; and the post-war denouncement is elongated. Despite its title, this book perhaps works better as a war chronicle of the men in the Second Polish Corps.
One strength is the skill with which the author explained the war to children:
‘World War II started when the Germans and the Russians went into Poland, the Germans from the left and the Russians from the right. They stopped exactly in the middle, where they drew a line.
“This half is ours now,” the Germans said.
“And we’ll take the other half,” the Russians said.
Poor Poland! From that day on, the country as everyone knew it no longer existed…’
The author continues
‘…Then something unbelievable happened: an entire army of Germans invaded Russia.
“We thought you were our friends!” the Russians shouted at the Germans.
“Ha!” the Germans shouted back, “We’re only friends with ourselves!”…’
Similarly, grisly war details are handled with tact. The war violence gets no more explicit than one soldier reflecting how he almost got blown up, but was instead witness to a death. Spoiler alert: the death of the monkey Kaska and her baby monkey is a stand-in for the emotional toll of war. In all, the author handled the difficult aspects of war with skill and age-appropriateness.
However, American readers are likely to be taken aback by a few additional details in this telling. Note that it was originally published in the Netherlands (2008) where some of the questionable elements may be more acceptable. What is an American reader to make of a bear who prefers beer and cigarettes to honey? Fact is fact, but I expect that some parents might be uncomfortable, especially given its middle-elementary target audience. Then we have a few of the author’s descriptions sometimes veering into what we would call politically incorrect. One of the characters disdains goodbyes filled with “sobbing away like a bunch of girls” (134) while another greets the death of Hitler with the religious expletive “Holy Mary, Mother of God” (130). To further problematize the text, I suspect this is the creative part of creative nonfiction, or invented dialogue.
I commend the publisher Eerdmans for taking on such a risky book. (In library school, we learned about an illustrated version of Little Red Riding Hood that had been challenged or banned because Red was bringing wine in her basket to Grandma.) Certainly the true story of the war bear Voytek deserves to be told. Reservations aside, this book could fit into an interdisciplinary unit on war or W.W.II . or as the perfect book for the budding history buff. As Americans, we so often view the War through an American or British lens. Soldier Bear is noteworthy because it is one of the few books about the war from the Polish Army’s perspective. In sum, it is an important book.
Middle Elementary/Grade 3 and up; 145 pages with illustrations and photos. Recommended with reservations for larger libraries or specialized readers, parents, and teachers.
Actual video footage of Voytek (Wojtek) produced by British website The War Years.