Pandemic Book Recommendation #14: Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin
All of the books I’ve reviewed thus far I read before social distancing. Not this one – I finished Bearskin last night. I loved it, and not just because the setting is in the Appalachia Mountains where I grew up and the Arizona desert where my daughter now resides. This book was an excellent escape for the helplessness I’ve felt in quarantine – it did for me exactly what a novel is supposed to do.
But be warned – this is not a touchy-feely, pick me up kind of story. Visualize a full escape from the monotony of impotently watching your beard grow in your basement. It is a dangerous journey into a brutal and primitive kill-or-be-killed existence. Prepare to embrace the myth of redemptive violence and some toxic masculinity as you explore the most breathtaking landscapes in the USA on a life or death adventure. It is violent, dark and suspenseful. Some of the graphic descriptions will stick with you.
The protagonist, Rice Moore, is a field Biologist who sees the world through a scientific lens. He would be Vern Peters, only if Vern had a previous life as a drug mule. The complexities of Appalachian ecosystems are intricately revealed as Rice circumvents the hollows of western Virginia (NOT to be confused with West Virginia), protecting a nature reserve from bear poachers. But Rice has a past. His last research project was in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, where he made enemies in the Mexican drug cartels. Homicidal narco-assassins are not the kind of guys you want to piss off. In essence, they will follow you to remote hollows, and they won’t care how distracted you are by the mafia funded hillbilly bear poachers already trying to kill you. (Yes – the Mexican drug cartel, the mob, and ex-military hillbillies all converge. Amazing).
I was hooked when I met the one-armed hillbilly mushroom picker in the opening chapter, whose thick drawl portrayed on Audible brought me back home to West Virginia (NOT to be confused with western Virginia). I met this man in real life at the top of a mountain at the end of one of the most secluded hollows in Harrison County when I worked for its Planning Commission in the mid-1990s. He was a World War I veteran (Yes, WWI – The Great War for you Canadians) who had such extreme PTSD that when he returned from the war, he left civilization to herd sheep and live off the land for seventy years. I had to ask him to repeat his words multiple times, but he had a heart of gold and seemed to be almost at one with the landscape around him. He was a spiritual guide for me at the time – and I met him again through the character of the mushroom shaman in the book (though in real-life no tripping was involved).
So, turn off the news and put on your ghillie suit. Spend a week with Vern (er, I mean Rice) trampling through rhododendron and hemlock forests eating what you can kill or forage. Try some natural hallucinogenic mushrooms and dance with the bears you were assigned to protect. Stalk and be stalked. Kill or be killed. Most of all, enjoy being outside again.