January 22, 2015


The Polar Bear Scientists. By Peter Lourie. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

Hold Fast. By Blue Balliett. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Here are two paperback reissues that give readers a chance to consider anew some interesting factual and fictional works – or encounter the material for the first time. The Polar Bear Scientists, originally published in 2012 in the “Scientists in the Field” series, is built around interviews with biologist Steven Amstrup, “the godfather of Alaskan polar bear research for the past thirty years.” Amstrup talks not only about climate change, for which the polar bear has become a sort of poster child, but also about the history of studies of the largest bears in the world, the capture-release-and-recapture program that makes modern scientific study of them possible, the use of radio collars to track bears that move between polar nations, and more. Other scientists and support personnel, such as George Durner and Kristin Simac, discuss the bears as well, and all are seen with bears, with the equipment used to catch and track them, and in the laboratory and office settings where data are entered, assembled and correlated. Peter Lourie’s words and photos clearly depict the difficult conditions under which scientists work with the bears – and the frigid land where the bears thrive, or try to. Some photos tell the story in ways that are more immediately dramatic than the text: a female with three cubs trying to scare off the scientists’ helicopter, a bear print that is elevated because Arctic winds have blown away the lighter surrounding snow, a female bear lying in snow as a scientist prepares gear to weigh and measure her, yearling male bears roughhousing, and of course some adorable cubs. The sorts of decisions the scientists face are clearly explained.  A missing collar, for example, needs to be located if at all possible. “Of course it’s expensive to go find a distant collar, with the cost of fuel and time, but it’s equally if not more important to find a collar in order to determine whether a bear has died or has just dropped it.” A photo showing scientists with pickaxes trying to break through ice to dig up a collar gives some idea of what is involved in retrieval. The Polar Bear Scientists tells as much about the people who study these bears as it does about the bears themselves: the humans are concerned, dedicated and meticulous in their work. The global-warming debate has continued since this book’s original publication, driven more by political considerations than by hard science – but Amstrup puts it into perspective after Lourie points out that the bears have gone through at least two periods that were warmer than the current one. In those earlier warm periods, says Amstrup, “we didn’t have nearly as many humans out there competing with bears and otherwise affecting their security. …[A]s temperatures rise and habitat is reduced, polar bears are going to be competing with a lot of human uses of their environment.”  The scientists’ worry comes through not as agenda-motivated but as genuine, well-intentioned and transcending politics.

     The intentions are certainly good as well in Blue Balliett’s Hold Fast, a novel first published in 2013. But aside from first and last sections called “Ice,” this book has nothing in common with the study of polar bears. It is instead a study of people, in a cold city that is nevertheless warmer than the bears’ Arctic habitat: Chicago. Balliett’s (+++) book is somewhat too enamored of its own cleverness – for example, aside from the “Ice” parts, the book contains 12 sections that all have “C” titles (“Click,” “Crash,” “Cling,” “Clutch,” and so forth), with each word defined in several ways before each section begins. As in her earlier books, Balliett looks into the past for elements of this one, which springs from a major diamond heist in 2003. But unlike her prior novels, which at their best were fascinatingly art-focused, Hold Fast is essentially the simple story of a family sundered and eventually reunited. Balliett uses the story as a framework for advocating, in a passing and rather simplistic way, various causes; for example, she writes, in a note about homelessness at the book’s end, that the solution to this major societal issue is a simple matter of matching those without houses to abandoned and foreclosed buildings – a “solution” whose overwhelming naïveté is less than charming. The book itself does have charm, though, even if it comes across as somewhat too contrived. The basic family unit consists of Dashel (Dash) Pearl; his wife, Summer; son, Jubilation (Jubie); and daughter, Early, the book’s protagonist. The mystery here emerges quickly, as Dash tosses out some apparently unimportant (but perhaps crucial) number problems from a poem by Langston Hughes, and shortly thereafter vanishes mysteriously, leaving behind a notebook containing various numbers and a final line, “Must research number rhythms.” The disappearance, the notebook and Hughes are all recurring themes, along with the issues of what a home really is, what homelessness means to those who experience or fear experiencing it, and how people make it through extremely difficult times. Balliett goes out of her way to show how wonderful homeless-shelter operators and volunteers are: “If one of you gets sick, we’ll connect you with medical care. Chicago HOPES, a wonderful after-school tutoring organization, keeps a room here with books and games in it, a place to get homework help and some one-on-one attention.” And so on. The good guys here are so good – and the bad ones so bad – that Hold Fast is more unidimensional than Balliett’s other books; and the ongoing advocacy, however well-meant and justifiable based on Balliett’s sociopolitical views, gives the book more of a pamphlet’s stridency than is really good for it.  The characters become types more than fully formed individuals as a result, and while they endure and overcome hardship, and Balliett pulls the plot strands together expertly, the overall feeling of this book is that it has a point to make rather than a story to tell. Hold Fast is well written, but its narrative is ultimately the victim of its author’s good intentions.

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