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 . . .
That’s a very succinct and child-friendly description of the opening days of the war. The story of Soldier Bear goes on to provide a way for young readers to grasp the chaos of those years through the fate of five Polish soldiers and one furry friend.
The Polish military who were trapped on the Russian side were kept in POW camps and nearly starved until Germany invaded Russia, when they had the opportunity to escape–not back to their own country but to Iran, a fragment of the British empire on the far eastern border of Russia. There, Peter and Stanislav, separated for two years, are miraculously reunited. They join the British Army, where they enlarge their circle to include Lolek, Pavel, and Janusz. These five become part of the 3nd Polish Corps Transport Company, tasked with trucking equipment from Iran to Palestine.
On their first mission, the five encounter a boy with a bag, in which something appears to be moving. It’s an orphaned bear cub, and after moments of cuddling the critter, Stanislav trades a pen knife, a can of corned beef, and some pocket change for him. They christen him Voytek, or “smiling warrior”: “. . . and we bless you and pray that you have a long and happy life.” The prayer is granted: the little cub grows to a big bear with a penchant for mischief. He eats a lot but proves his usefulness by entertaining the troops, capturing a spy, reconciling quarreling friends, and pitching in to help unload live artillery shells. That last helpful gesture causes the commanding officers a few anxious moments, but Voytek is as careful as any soldier. His reputation and value to the company grow and grow until, one year after their arrival in Italy, the Polish 2nd receives a new insignia: a bear carrying an artillery shell.
The author communicates the stress of the war without too much blood or graphic violence. It’s a true story (with photos to prove it!) that plays to children’s natural fascination with animals, while reminding adults that animals who spend lots of time with humans tend to grow more human. And animals can bring out the best in humanity as well. The bond between Voytek and his human buddies goes deeper than feeding and being fed–as Peter explains to the officer who wants to separate them, “They needed their animal friends.” Any PETA representatives around back then, would probably have protested a bear’s being pressed into munitions transport , but the first time Peter and Stanislas tried to motor to the front without him, Voytek leaned on the hood of the truck and didn’t move until they let him take his customary place beside the driver. He adapts, even picking up a soldier’s taste for beer and cigarettes–which he doesn’t smoke but eats. Lighted. And his postwar life in a Scottish preserve was longer than the average bear-in-the-wild’s.
Soldier Bear won the this year’s Mildred L. Batchelder Award given by the American Library Association for an outstanding children’s book translated from a foreign language (in this case, Dutch). It’s a solid addition to a school library and a good family read-aloud, too.
- Worldview/Moral value: 4
- Literary value: 3