Book Review – The Shadow of the Bear by Kat Argo
As many of you who read this blog know, I’m in the process of editing a book I plan to release at some point in the future. The book is a collection of fictional short stories that delves into some of the darker emotions and experiences that twenty somethings have to deal with for the first time in their lives. My rationale for doing this is to shine a light on topics that often go undiscussed or dismissed by people who assume the world is nothing but a wonderful place to live in. Even though I’m working to become a more optimistic individual, solely seeing the world as a joyful place is an act of foolishness.
The stories in my book, however, are nothing more than what I initially described them as — works of fiction. I recently had the opportunity to read the new book “The Shadow of the Bear” by Kat Argo, which is a sobering and harrowing depiction of the ongoing Ukrainian Civil War. To say that the book is a must-read for anyone who has a desire to know what is truly happening in the world((Particularly those in the USA who hear little about non-US news)) would be an understatement.
Admittedly, I went into the book expecting two things based off of my previous reading of Ms. Argo’s blog.
- A heavily non-fiction story based on the timeline of events around her experiences in Ukraine
- A fairly level mix of transparency on and shielding of the horrors of war.
I’ll get to why I expected the second item in a moment. As for the first, based off of everything that I was told about the book prior to getting my copy, I had no choice but to expect a completely non-fiction account that read like non-fiction. In my mind, there’s a distinct line between fiction writing and non-fiction writing. The former has flowery, descriptive language aimed at painting a picture in an effort to get the reader to connect to the characters, storylines, and themes therein. Meanwhile, the latter should read almost in a textbook-like style; it should be dry, difficult to digest, and largely unenjoyable unless you have a specific interest in the topic at hand.
“The Shadow of the Bear” doesn’t read like a high school textbook. Instead of delivering a non-fiction work in a non-fiction style, the book reads much more like a fiction piece than non-fiction. I’d have to imagine that if this book were to be made into an audiobook, it would be a very gripping listen, thanks in large part to the conversational storytelling style Ms. Argo uses.
Now as to that second point — the equal(ish) mix of transparency on war and shielding of the horrors it creates — I didn’t create the assumption because of a lack of faith in Ms. Argo’s writing ability. Quite the contrary is true, as anyone who has read her blog can attest to. That said, we live in a world where any form of violent action is either completely glossed over or is blown out of proportion. Neither of those is the correct reaction to have. War — actual combat where people are being injured, tortured, or dying in the name of nationalism, religion, profit, or some combination of the three — is a very specific, very grisly and dark concept. It’s a term thrown around carelessly when it’s not needed, yet the true atrocities actual war brings are rarely brought to light.
Here’s the thing. There’s an actual war going on in Ukraine. War is hell. War brings out the worst in people. Nothing conveys that better than a particular anecdote told late in the book regarding a prisoner of war march through the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. To set the scene without giving too much away, there are three primary parties involved in the Ukrainian civil war: the country of Ukraine, a group of separatist Ukrainians (typically of Russian descent), and Russia((Russia’s official stance is that they are not involved in this conflict however there is significant evidence to the contrary. Even if Russia isn’t a belligerent in name, they’re certainly still a significant influence to the actions taken by both sides of this conflict.)).The separatists had captured some Ukrainian fighters as prisoners, which lead to a scene where said prisoners of war were marched through the streets of separatist-held Donetsk.
For those unaware, humiliation of prisoners of war is a direct violation of the Geneva Conventions. While there’s certainly debate as to whether those captured were technically prisoners of war because the separatists did not have their own country, the actions taken were…well. Allow me to let words directly from “The Shadow of the Bear” do the talking.
“The prisoners looked atrophied, exhausted and
pale. Their hands were clasped behind their back,
heads bowed, eyes downcast. I couldn’t count the
number of black eyes I saw among them.
They marched at bayonet point, and the soldiers –
their captors – spent most of their time restraining the
angry crowd that threw rocks, eggs, bottles and spat
on the Ukrainian soldiers on display. They hurled
insults and several people attempted to run up and
attack the prisoners.” — The Shadow of the Bear
May you and I only find such scenes as bleak settings of a book and nothing more.
I cannot recommend “The Shadow of the Bear” empathetically enough. The book has some very dark points, as a book about war should. But it humanizes conflict and violence, making it a very, very real thing to the reader. If you do read it but have concerns about the dark tales in the book, that’s perfectly fine. It’s a great read. If you’re planning to read “The Shadow of the Bear” because you have no fear or war and its atrocities, you’re exactly the person who needs to read this book.