A Brooklyn artist creates a scrap-metal sculpture of a giant bear for a small Georgia community—and, years later, his grieving son heads south to find his father’s masterpiece.
The Powell clan—poor farmers and folk artists—believe that a bear sculpture will serve as a protective totem against the polio epidemic that has crippled and killed so many local children and adults. According to the half-remembered teachings of their long-dead Granny Annie, that is, who was part-Cherokee. Another superstitious relative has a load of scrap metal shipped to the Brooklyn studio of Richard Riconni, an unrecognized genius whose saintly young sister died in an iron lung. Riconni sets to work, using leg braces to create the Iron Bear’s armature and a tractor carburetor for its heart. When the finished sculpture finally arrives in Tiberville, many deride it, but others love it—including the current head of the Powell clan, who even gives his newborn daughter a bearish name, Ursula, to commemorate the day. She grows up healthy and happy on the Powell farm located on (where else?) Bear Creek, playing around the Iron Bear, which her father eventually bought and moved to his land, though at a terrible cost: he then couldn’t afford medical care for Ursula’s mother, who died in childbirth as a result. The baby boy she leaves behind is further afflicted with autism, able to communicate only with the Iron Bear, which speaks to him in the voice of his dead mother. Enter Quentin Riconni, a handsome hunk inspired by his father’s violent death to a quest for the Iron Bear. Ursula won’t part with it, of course—and Quentin falls in love with her and begins welding his own sculpture, Bear Two.
Smith (When Venus Fell, 1998, etc) has a real affection for folk artists and rural characters, but even so her story suffers by remaining—well, improbable.