Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Gentle Ben by Walt Morey

Gentle Ben is a classic story set in the wilderness of the Alaskan Territory. Thirteen-year-old Mark Andersen lives in Orca City a fictional fishing village along the Alaskan coast with his father Karl and his mother Ellen. His father is a seiner who owns a boat, the Far North and makes his living off the yearly salmon run. Mark had an older brother Jamie who died from tuberculosis.

Every day Mark can't help but stop by the shed where a five-year-old brown bear named Ben is chained to a post. The bear is owned by Fog Benson who captured him when he was a six month old cub, after shooting the cub's mother. Benson does not care for Ben well, and the bear is bony and thin from lack of food. Mark likes to share his lunch with Ben and then sit and scratch him under the chin, something the bear loves.

Mark wishes he owned Ben and could take him to the stream to each the tender shoots, grubs and salmon, but he knows his father will never agree. He hates the way Ben is kept in the shed and not fed properly but his fear of his father's temper is difficult to overcome. Mark's father is busy getting his boat ready for the opening of the salmon season in two weeks. His father and Clearwater, an older Alaskan man are working to make sure everything is ready so that when the opening is declared they can be ready at sea.

At dinner Mark's father reveals that Fog Benson has offered to sell him the bear for one hundred dollars. If he doesn't buy him, Benson plans on turning Ben out on the tundra and offering people the chance to take a shot at him. Mark speaks up and asks his father to buy Ben. At the urging of his mother Mark tells his father how he found Ben loose one day and how he took him back to the shed, scratching him under the chin. Karl is stunned and admonishes for allowing him to be with the bear who he considers a dangerous, unpredictable animal. However, Ellen tells her husband that she has seen the bond that has developed between Mark and Ben.

After Mark is sent to his room, Karl and Ellen talk about Ben; Mark decides to eavesdrop. Ellen tells Karl that Mark is not thriving; he's pale, has little appetite and is not active. Dr. Walker has indicated that this puts him at risk for tuberculosis which killed his brother Jamie. He was exposed and therefore is at risk. He needs exercise and good food. Ellen suggests they buy the bear because this seems to be the only think that Mark is interested in. Karl refuses, believing the idea is "preposterous". However, Ellen persists. "I only know that sometimes something does happen between people and animals. There seems to be a bond the overcomes all fear, prejudice, everything objectionable..." Ellen believes this is their one chance to save Mark from the same fate as Jamie.

In the morning Mark decides to hike across the tundra to the small valley and stream to set Ben free. But Ben is determined to stay with Mark so he leads him into the tall sedge grass in the hopes he can sneak off while Ben is feeding. Meanwhile at the house Karl discovers Mark is missing, so he follows Ben's tracks  to the valley. There he is confounded to see Mark asleep next to Ben, one arm along Ben's neck. Karl awakens Mark and tells him it was wrong to take Ben who doesn't belong to him and makes him take the bear back to the shed. At home, Karl presents to Mark the responsibilities he would have to undertake if he were to buy Ben; he will have to cut grass for the bear, feed him, work on the boat with Clearwater and learn how to swim. When Mark readily agrees to do all of this, Karl tells him that he will purchase Ben.

With Ben now his, Mark works hard to keep his end of the bargain. But when Ben is provoked into attacking a man, the people of Orca City want the brown bear gone. Mark reluctantly agrees to free Ben on an island to save him. Little does he know that a set of unforseen circumstances will reunite his with his beloved bear.


Gentle Ben is a classic animal story similar to that of Jack London's White Fang. The book was so popular that a television series was created in the 1960's based loosely on the novel, except that it was set in the Florida Everglades and featured a black bear. Morey's novel is typical for the time in which it was written; stories and television series featuring characters befriending animals and exploring the inexplicable bond that sometimes forms between man and animal were common. Lassie and Flipper are examples of other shows that were popular at this time. Gentle Ben is especially appealing because the animal of interest is a "brown bear...the largest, most dangerous big-game animal in North America." As Ellen tells Karl, "He is the largest carnivorous animal on earth. He is the last living relic of those fabulous hairy mammals of the Ice Age who migrated from Asia and Russia millions of years ago...He is a direct descendant of the legendary Siberian cave bear."

Gentle Ben is filled with the fascinating details of life in Alaska before it became a state in 1959. There are descriptions of the vast tundra and sweeping mountains, the life cycle of the salmon, the workings of various types of traps used to catch the salmon at sea, the ins and outs of working a seiner, and the fish pirates who steal salmon from traps and fish illegally in the spawning streams. Morey is able to convey a sense of the vast wilderness of Alaska and how precarious life can be in the far north. Karl Andersen had purchased his boat four years earlier and had just made the final payment. His family is dependent on the annual Alaskan salmon run to make their living, so the boat is crucial. Yet he loses his vessel in a winter storm when he takes over the mail run to make some extra money. Although Andersen survives the sinking, his best friend and crew member, Clearwater drowns.

Morey provides plenty of experiences for Mark that will help mature him; working for Ben's upkeep, learning to work on his father's boat, dealing with the death of Clearwater, the moving away of Mike Kelly and giving up Ben to save him from being shot. Before he owns Ben, Mark deeply desires to have the kind of relationship his brother Jamie had with their father. "He wanted to be friends with his father and feel that same closeness there had been between his father an Jamie...And he was afraid of his father's temper, the harshness of his voice. The look from  his father's blue eyes when he was displeased could freeze you inside. Mark was sure he would never know such warm companionship with his father." Although Mark does ask his father for Ben, it is his mother who forces Karl to reconsider. When his father agrees to buy Ben, Mark begins to see his father in a new way. As they are going up the path to see Ben in the shed, "Mark could not help noticing how his father's broad shoulders were back, his head high, the rest of blond hair shining in the bright morning sun..." Over time, Karl comes to acknowledge the relationship his son has with Ben. While he doesn't understand it, as it goes against everything he knows about brown bears, he comes to accept it.

Mark fulfills all of his responsibilities that he agreed to and even manages to work out an agreement with Mike Kelly to store Ben's food in his freezer over the winter. His first trip on his father's boat when he spends two days away from home lead Mark to begin to change - something he notices immediately. "He had been gone two days...He felt he had changed a lot. He felt as old, as experienced, as wise as Jamie had seemed that last year when he'd gone on the boat with their father. He knew he was not the same boy who had kissed his mother good-bye on the dock and then run aboard the boat so she wouldn't see the tears filling his eyes." His adventures over the summer also have the added benefit of improving Mark's health. At the beginning of the novel he is thin and sickly but after the summer his health vastly improves, he grows an inch and gains ten pounds and at the end of the novel he is described as being very healthy.

Gentle Ben is a heartwarming novel for those younger readers who love stories about animals and the outdoors. It's not a lengthy story, and the bond between Mark and Ben is curiously satisfying. Still a great classic read for children.

Book Details:

Gentle Ben by Walt Morey
New York: Puffin Books     1965
191 pp.

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