Monday, January 2, 2023

The Last Speaker of Bear

The Last Speaker of Bear

by Lawrence Millman

San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2022

214 pp., $18.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

I first encountered Larry Millman -- by way of a printed page -- more than forty years ago on the shelves of a bookstore in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. The book was Our Like Will Not Be There Again: Notes from the West of Ireland; at the time, I was big on anything Irish, so I picked up the book almost without a thought. Reading it on my way home on the creaky cars of the Shaker Rapid, I was soon riveted: the narrative within was neither the "Romantic Ireland" that seems to live eternally (even though Yeats proclaimed it dead in 1913), but neither was it a mere travelogue of picturesque scenery and chatty publicans. It was more of a collection of characters, really, the plain (and not so plain) people of Ireland that he'd had chanced to meet as he tramped about. And what characters! -- among them a wandering minstrel who proclaims "After me, it'll be dead -- poetry, I mean." All of these encounters are framed by Millman's lively eye and ear, and and the end of the book I remember simply wishing there were more.

Since then, Millman has gone on to write a good long shelf-full of books, most of them connected with his wanderings in the North. In these, he has gathered yet more tales and their tellers, incorporating them into the larger fabric of his prose with the skill of a master weaver. He has long practiced his own wry art of juxtaposition, finding irony -- far more than three types of it -- in places where rugged individualists gather just outside the edges of our 'civilized' existence. In The Last Speaker of Bear, though, Millman adopts a slightly different tactic: here, the anecdotes are scattered, each on its own, without the connective tissue of a larger narrative. The result can be uneven in places; like gemstones pulled from their settings, not all of these tales have quite the same sparkle. Nevertheless, all are engaging, and quite a few shine brightly on their own, the title story among them.

This last speaker, we find, resides in Utshimassits, a since-abandoned Innu village about 200 miles north of Goose Bay in Labrador. The story goes that this elder was the lone remaining practitioner of polite conversation with bears, conducted just before a hunter kills one. It goes like this, as the hunter begins:

"My family is very hungry, Grandfather, so would it be okay if I kill you?"

"I don't mind if you kill me, but you'll have to smoke a pipe with me after you've done so."

This of course begs the question of how exactly one smokes a pipe with a dead bear, but apparently in the olden days the Innu even made special pipes just for this occasion. Unfortunately, as so often happens, poor weather unsuitable for small planes has delayed Millman's flight; the last speaker of bear has died the night before he arrives. His friend and informant, who'd told him of this man, explains that now, "we just kill bears," as he feels the few words he himself knows of the bear language are so meagre and poor that they would just be an insult to them.

It's a quintessential Larry story, as it's one that only could be told to him, and only he could tell -- his manner is impeccable, that of a raconteur's raconteur. But it's also, as are many of these tales, both funny and elegiac; it's not only speakers of bear, but ice, walrus, patrmigan, and seals that are growing scarcer, as global warming rejiggers the Northern ecosystem. At the same time, airplanes, cruise ships, and tourists -- that bane of Millman's world -- are becoming steadily more numerous.

But of course, when he wants, he can pass among them. One of my favorite stories in the book concerns an expedition cruise up the coast of Labrador on which Millman is serving as a shipboard lecturer. Hour after hour, day after day, the ice prevents the ship from anchoring for any landings, and the captain ends up continually shifting to a further goal, none of which are reached (this will be a scenario familiar to nearly anyone who's taken such a cruise). At last, even the point of disembarkation in Iqaluit becomes inaccessible, and the captain has to discharge his passengers at a distant landing, from which buses will take them back over the trackless tundra. Back in Iqaluit, Millman is approached by an old friend, who asks "So, the trip didn't go according to plan?" "Not at all," Larry replies, but with great enthusiasm. Because, for him, the travails, the detours, and the deferred plans are what it's all about. Like Chaucer's Wife of Bath, he knows a great deal about "wandering by the way," and we are all the richer for sharing in his journeys.

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