The lives of a boy and a captured polar bear intertwine in this middle-grade historical novel.
Historic documents show that 13th-century king Henry III of England kept a “pale bear” in his menagerie in the Tower of London, a gift from King Haakon IV of Norway. Fletcher takes this spare fact and embroiders a stupendous coming-of-age tale stuffed with adventure and laced with deeper questions. Her protagonist is 12-year-old Arthur, a Welsh-born boy who has run away from the farm in Norway where he lives with his mother, bullying stepbrothers, and tyrannical stepfather to try to get back to Wales to claim his birthright. A series of believable circumstances moves Arthur onto the ship transporting the polar bear to England after King Haakon’s disgraced doctor—who is charged with delivering the gift safely or else—discovers that Arthur is able to soothe the bear. Heart-pounding adventures involving shipwreck, pirates, and escape combine with themes of belonging, trust, loyalty, and freedom to keep readers swiftly turning the pages, while the exquisite worldbuilding details will make them feel they are sailing aboard a Scandinavian keel or walking the streets of 13th-century London and Bergen. Fletcher brings the story to a poignant but not fairy-tale-happy ending, suffused as it is by the mature (so apt for a coming-of-age story) questions raised about what freedom actually is. All characters appear to be white.
A richly satisfying story saturated with color, adventure, and heart. (author’s note) (Historical fiction. 8-12)