The Year of the Bear (Book Review)

  • Author: Douglas J. Lanzo
  • Publisher: Ambassador International
  • Available Now
  • Synopsis: Jason, a middle school cross-country runner and aspiring outdoorsman, matures while caring for or an orphaned cub.
  • Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher. Opinions expressed are my own.

Scripture Connection

This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

1 John 4:10

Spiritual Themes

Forgiveness is central to the plot line. Something I really appreciate, in the discussion about forgiveness, is that Lanzo strongly emphasizes the truth that God is the One to change our hearts so that we can forgive.

This is why I chose the 1 John verse. I’m not sure that the story explicitly references Jesus’ sacrifice, but it does clearly show that forgiveness originates with God. Another good verse would be Ezekiel 36:26.

What I Liked

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have recent Indigenous ancestry, and my main draw to this book was its emphasis on Indigenous culture: specifically, that of the Penobscot Indians. This is not an #OwnVoices novel, but it is written about a boy who has close Penobscot friends, in the 1980s.

I appreciated Lanzo’s treatment of racism and prejudice in the mid-1980s. The novel portrays the mistreatment of Jason’s Penobscot friends, as well as Jason himself, on the basis of prejudice. I liked that Jason makes some good choices, in terms of not yielding to peer pressure, but also is not overly commended for these choices. He does not become the “white savior,” but instead learns so much from his friends. I was glad that the main character was white, like the author, and feel that Lanzo did a great job of demonstrating respect for Penobscot culture.

Along this line, it was neat to see how Lanzo depicted Sasquot and his father as Christians, without having them forsake their heritage. The United States has an appalling history of cultural genocide and forced assimilation, and I am so glad that Lanzo did not show Sasquot becoming a Christian, by way of forsaking his people (i.e., boarding school mentality).

Jason and Kyle were, for the most part, sympathetic characters whose stories drew me in. I enjoyed watching their growth as a family unit, and felt invested in the continuing subplot with Jason’s mom. At the same time, it was really neat to see how Sasquot, Zephyr and Autumn formed an extended family for Jason and his dad.

The cross-country/track plotline was a lot of fun. While I don’t typically gravitate towards sports stories (and wasn’t expecting one, when I requested The Year of the Bear), I liked following Jason’s development as a runner. I also liked reading Sasquot’s running advice.

The plot was less about bear-raising than I expected, but I think that made it a much more interesting read, for me.

Content Notes

There was at least one use of “g–z.”

As this is a work of historical fiction that honestly portrays ignorant attitudes, there are a number of racist comments/words, including the use of the term “Indian” (or its phonetic relative), as an insult. However, these attitudes are portrayed negatively, and Jason actively combats them.


Jason’s middle school antagonist, who is the main face of racism in the story, has a moment of come-uppance after harassing a bear cub. Subsequently, Jason becomes an on-campus hero, while his nemesis is the laughingstock of the school.

While I appreciate that the author shows racism as unequivocably wrong, I was surprised that this is where we “left off” with the middle school bad guy. I am used to middle grade fiction that shows a moment of reconciliation, or at least grace. We do, however, see the theme of forgiveness through Kyle and Sasquot’s stories.

Respectful Discussion (Vague Spoiler)

I found the ending of the book to be very powerful. However, I felt that the story leading up to the ending could have been a bit more directed toward that moment, as the story seemed to simply progress through a year in Jason’s life. I would find it a little bit challenging, for instance, to identify a specific climax.

On the other hand, the novel is entitled The Year of the Bear, so maybe that’s the point: just walking with Jason through this pivotal year in his life. It’s a formative year for him, as opposed to a formative moment. Even so, I wish that more of the book could have carried/contributed to the power of the ending.

Recommendation Status

I requested this book mainly because of the Native American elements, and I probably wouldn’t have picked it up, otherwise. With that said, I did enjoy walking through a year of life with Jason, and seeing his development as a character, in the context of family and community. Recommended as a coming-of-age story for upper elementary or junior high school students.

Published by Stephaniesninthsuitcase

Hi, there! My name is Stephanie and I’m a Fresno, CA native. After studying at Biola University, I received my MLIS (Masters in Library Science) from San Jose State University. I live with my mom, poet Kimberly Vargas Agnese, and serve as her unofficial agent. We reside at MeadowArc, a food forest in its infancy. I am called to, and passionate about, purity. In fact, the name Agnes means “pure.” Before I was born, my mom felt led to include the name Agnes in her name, and in the names of her children. My full, hyphenated name includes 26 letters (but not the whole alphabet).

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