The Bear who came from Lewes

In a recent article about a trip to Lewes, I mentioned previous visits to the town. One of these I made on my own, when I paid what you might call a sentimental visit to the Fifteenth Century Bookshop there.

When I was a child, I was one day given a book called The Arkansas Bear. Where it came from, I do not know. It was possibly donated by a family friend or perhaps my mother bought it in a secondhand book­shop. I will never know.

The Arkansas Bear, front cover
The Arkansas Bear, front cover

The book may have once had a dust jacket but none was present on my copy. I loved the book and had my mother read me the story many times.

Briefly, it is about a runaway boy who meets a violin-playing bear. They team up and have some adventures together. While the boy, Bosephus, exercises some control over Horatio, the bear, and prevents major disasters, dramatic tension is maintained by the several episodes in which violence is only narrowly avoided. Horatio is not the cuddly animal hero of too many modern children’s books.

The book comes from the Victorian era (if one can refer to the Victorian era in the context of the United States), being published in 1898 by Albert Bigelow Paine, with illustrations by Harry Rountree. Paine wrote other children’s books but is best known as a biographer of Mark Twain. If you wish to know more about him and Harry Rountree, there are many references to be had by searching for their names on the Web.

The story begins...
The story begins…

The theme that underlies the story is the song, The Arkansas Traveler (composed by Colonel Sanford Faulkner in 1840), whose music Horatio the bear plays on the violin, and each chapter begins with the music and words for one of the verses. I like to imagine children reading the book and picking out the tune on the piano or other instrument.

My copy of the book disappeared into the mists of time but I re­mem­bered it and often thought of it and occasionally, on visits to book­shops, looked to see if they had a copy.

So it was that on a visit to Lewes, I looked in the window of the Fifteenth Century Bookshop and there, as a centrepiece, was a copy of The Arkansas Bear! I pointed it out to Tigger and told her about my memories of it.

“Are you going to buy it?” asked the ever practical Tigger.

I was in one of my if–you-don’t-need-it-don’t-waste-money-on-it moods and so we walked on. Over the next few days, though, I kept thinking about the book and even wondering whether, by some amazing coincidence, it was the one I had owned.

Bosephus meets Horatio!
Bosephus meets Horatio!

Eventually, I put in a phone call to the bookshop and enquired after the book.

“No, we don’t have it,” came the answer.

“But it was in your window.”

They went to look but asserted they didn’t have the book. In view of my insistence, though, they promised to let me know if it turned up.

They could have sold the book, I thought to myself, but then, surely, my call would have jogged their memory. It seemed an unlikely coincidence that someone had bought the book shortly after I had seen it.

So I took the train to Lewes. It seemed the most reasonable thing to do. And, of course, there was the book, still holding court in the middle of the window. So I bought it, obviously.

This particular edition was published by Harrap in 1919 and this fits with the dedication on the flyleaf, presumably written by a parent to his or her daughter Margaret in 1921.

Dedication to Margaret Bannister
Dedication to Margaret Bannister

This is not the identical copy that I owned (I would have remembered the dedication) but that would be too much to hope for. It is enough that a cherished memory has come to join me from my childhood in the form of a book now 91 years old.

You might imagine that I read the book immediately on returning home, but for some reason, I didn’t. It sat of the shelf for several weeks before I finally opened it. Why? I cannot say. Perhaps I was waiting for the right moment. The unlikely tale, made real by the author’s telling of it, is as fresh as ever. There is a sharpness to it, an edginess of danger, of life in a world where bears have a taste for human flesh and angry farmers fire guns at people who steal their melons, of vagabonds eking out a living by singing to the music of a violin and of the magic of a boy and a bear relaxing companionably in the moonlight, their bellies full of stolen melon.

I am not a collector of old books – or of anything else, for that matter – so this title will not be the start of a collection of antique volumes saved for my own enjoyment and the wonder of future generations. It’s a one-off, a splinter of memory from childhood, when my world was young and still infused with magic.

I hope Margaret enjoyed it as much as I did.

Copyright © 2010 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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10 Responses to The Bear who came from Lewes

  1. cbramhall says:

    Childhood memories exerted a similar grip over me several years ago when the pangs of regret at being talked into parting with a particular board game led me to eBay to find a replacement. While the game had been available for some time after I had been bought my original copy in the early 1970s, a later copy would not have sufficed since the pieces of my copy had been carved from wood rather than mass produced from plastic.

    A short search brought up several likely candidates and I eventually placed a bid – my first, and to date last. With several days to go I watched the price increase while my own apprehension about being pipped at the post grew in step. Eventually, I set up the site to automatically place a higher bid every time someone increased theirs and set what I hoped would be an excessive upper limit.

    As the final minutes ticked by before the close of bidding, I was hunched over the computer keyboard, eagerly clicking refresh, refresh, refresh until the magic hour passed and I had the confirmation I need that I had indeed been successful and for far less than the maximum bid I had placed.

    A few days later, a large parcel arrived containing the game. The brightly coloured pieces were all there, carved and painted in wood just as I remembered. Have I played the game again? Not yet, but perhaps that was not as important to me as assuaging the guilt I had felt ever since a friend had talked me into letting him buy my original copy for his younger brother all those years before.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Your story shows parallels with mine but also has very exciting elements! I’m glad you were successful and recovered your board game.

      Isn’t it interesting how solid objects can have an abstract importance to us so that the objects themselves are almost like actors playing a role.

  2. WOL says:

    I have a book my parents bought for me when my mother was pregnant with my brother — It’s one of those prepare your child for the coming baby type of books, quite simple, and only a few lines of text per page, with watercolor wash drawings that used a lot of blue- with blue dust jacket. (blue is a favorite color) What makes it priceless to me is that the book is about a little girl who was my age at the time my brother was born, her first name was the same as mine, and we both got a new brother. I might have even posed for the illustrations! At random intervals over the years, I have written the same phrase on the flyleaf, with the date beside it — the first entry was made when I was in first grade and had just learned to write. It’s about time to make another entry.

    I also have a book of the poet H. W. Longfellow’s poems from the turn of the century, which belonged to my great aunt, and a German

    • SilverTiger says:

      Sometimes, books or other items make a big impact on us when we are children and then stay with us throughout our lives. Others for a variety of reasons disappear but we often remember them.

      My main souvenir is my parents’ clock. It sat on the mantlepiece when I was a child and I learned to tell the time on it. I have had it repaired and serviced a couple of times but it is showing signs of age and wear. It often misses a beat when chiming the hour, which is misleading when you listen to it in the darkness at night! It is what taught me to love clocks. If I were rich, my house would be full of beautiful clocks.

  3. WOL says:

    woops, a German hymnbook that may have been my great grandmother’s — it doesn’t have any music. Just the words, and it’s in German, with black letter type font.

  4. WOL says:

    And meant to mention that “Bosephus” was the nickname that the country and western star Hank Williams gave to his son, Hank, Jr.. I wonder if it came from that book?

    • SilverTiger says:

      I don’t know why the author chose the name Bosephus. (He spells it with an ‘s’ in the middle where others spell it with a ‘c’.) Later the boy is called by a short form, Bo.

      Perhaps he liked the name or wrote the story with a boy called Bosephus in mind. Or maybe it was a popular name at the time. All sorts of possibilities but no certainties!

  5. AEJ says:

    I had two favorite books in my childhood. The Casual Observer by Elizabeth Whitson (1973) and Wren by Marie Killilea (1954). The Casual Observer copy is my original; the Wren copy came from eBay some years ago. I have favorites from my teenage years that I also later bought on eBay (you don’t realize they’re your favorites until you can’t stop thinking about them year after year), and then I also have favorites from reading to my son when he was little — The Berenstain Bears The Bears Picnic being our absolute favorite. These books all bring back such happy memories. I’m so glad you found your special book.

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