In the introduction to the heartwarming children’s book Black Bear Pastry & Other Delights, Riceton, SK author Kathleen K. Coleclough shares the unique inspiration for her story. When the writer was a child, her mother owned “a little cookbook” which contained recipes for items like “Baked Moose Nose,” “Pickled Beaver Tail,” and “Black Bear Pastry.” Regarding the latter, only the fat from a black bear that had eaten blueberries was suitable. How, wondered the young Coleclough, could one tell what a bear had eaten? It’s an interesting premise for a children’s story, and after reading this introduction I was eager to discover what would follow.
A writer of Ojibwa, Cree, Assiniboian, and Danish descent (“I’m Indian and Viking,” she tells students during presentations), and a member of the Metis Nation of Saskatchewan, Coleclough weaves cultural references – both overt, via language and illustrations (ie: the main character wears his long hair in braids) and less obvious (ie: the delightful sense of humour that the Metis have been credited with) – through her story.
The protagonist, Kenny, is an imaginative boy who loves his trips with his father – a “city person” who “didn’t like to be reminded of his roots” — to visit his Nookoo and Nimishoo (his grandparents) on the reserve. Kenny learns that his beloved Nookoo, aka Grandma Helen, loved black bear pastry as a child, and the boy decides he wants to make some for her. “Kenny,” the boy’s father says, “you can’t just go to a store and buy a bear.” The child continually implores his father to take him bear hunting, and eventually the father reluctantly agrees to do it “for Nookoo.”
This is a children’s story, yes, with age-appropriate language and credible characters – it was realistic and delightful how often friends and extended family were visiting the grandparents to work together on a mossbag, for example, or help fix an old truck — but it also deals with the “grown-up” issue of traditional vs. contemporary life. Kenny’s father says: “I haven’t hunted since I was your age, Kenny. I live a city life now. I don’t think I’d even remember what to do.” (Indeed, on their expeditions the boy and his father return first with a fish, then a goose. “Nice bear, boy,” a visiting friend jokes.)
David Benjoe’s subtle watercolour illustrations, which feature both the central characters and visitors (including “the gas man” who has come to read the meter), echo the grandparents’ simple way of life. Benjoe, of the Piapot First Nation, now lives in Regina and teaches art.
Curious types like myself are often interested in learning the back stories to published books. How did the writer come up with the idea? And when? Coleclough both satisfies these queries and delivers a poignant tale that I’d highly recommend for the personal libraries of all Saskatchewan youngsters. It offers a sincere representation of Metis culture, but more than that, it tells one heck of a fine story that both children and their elders will adore.
THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR WWW.SKBOOKS.COM