The Twentieth Century from the Eyes of a Bear

The first children’s book that I’ve translated from Portuguese into English, The World in a Second, is coming out next month, and I’m currently looking for other books to translate. I’d like to translate young adult novels, to do my part to broaden the horizons of teenagers, make them world travelers and good global citizens, and in the process, I’ve been reading other YA titles first published in other countries and then translated into English.

BUBENZER-Henry-Brown-cover-FRONT-copyOne of those titles that I’ve especially appreciated is Anne Helene Bubenzer’s The Incredible Story of Henry N. Brown, translated from German by Bryanna Klarr Weiche. The publisher came out at the end of 2014 from the small California-based Nortia Press, which specializes in books with international settings.

This German novel, written for both teen and adult readers (a true crossover), covers 90 years of history from the perspective of a stuffed bear, hand-made in 1921 by a young British woman mourning the loss of her new husband in Ireland’s war of independence. Shortly thereafter, Alice loses the bear in a railway station, and he becomes the property of two spoiled, bickering upper-class children in London. In their loveless home, Henry N. Brown (who is renamed many times by new owners) learns of the divisions of rich and poor, and the fact that people’s actions don’t often live up to their idealistic words. Over the next decades in France, Germany, Norway, Italy, Hungary, and the United States, he loses his innocence as he watches lives destroyed by war, spite, and the bureaucratic machinery of totalitarianism. He also learns about love that gives him hope for humanity.

This novel sold well in Germany, and its broad historical panorama—as well as a voice reminiscent of Markus Zusak’s classic The Book Thief—make it a good choice for middle and high school age readers moving into adult literature. Henry N. Brown is a philosophical bear, and many of his owners are either younger children (12-year-old Robert in Paris in 1940, or 9-year-old Nina in Budapest in 1989) or people in their twenties (Alice, the young, reluctant Nazi soldier and his wife, or Isabelle, a French student who travels to Italy in 1965 to save cultural treasures damaged in a flood). That said, one of the most compelling vignettes is that of a Swiss teenager, Laura, whose defiant, narcissistic behavior at the time of her parents’ divorce offends a bear who has already seen a lot of bad behavior. Yet, Henry’s faith and hope are restored when that same Laura journeys behind the Iron Curtain with her doctor father and her beloved bear to comfort the seriously ill Nina.

The novel’s strength lies in its storytelling and structure, as Bubenzer seamlessly interweaves the stories and another present-day narrative in which a U.S. customs official believes an object inside the bear is a terrorist weapon and threatens to cut Henry open. (And if you think that present-day sequence is contrived or unrealistic, it isn’t.) By the time I got to the third vignette, the story had drawn me in to the point that I didn’t notice it was even a translation from another language that, to some extent, reflected the sentence structure of that language. I hope that this and other translated titles will show young readers that a great story is a great story, regardless of the language in which it first appears.

1 comment for “The Twentieth Century from the Eyes of a Bear

  1. March 24, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    What an amazing journey for the philosophical bear 😉 I believe I will purchase this roller- coaster of an adventure and read it with my son. Thank you for a wonderful review.

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