A hundred years ago, a female black bear cub was born in the Ontario woods. She was soon orphaned, her mother killed by a hunter who took the cub to a trading post and sold her to a young cavalry officer. Harry Colebourn planned to raise the cub, which he named Winnipeg after his adopted hometown, to adolescence, then let her loose. But when he took the cub back to camp, his troop instantly adopted Winnipeg the Bear, who slept under his cot, until she soon grew too big to fit there, then just outside the door.
The Fort Garry Horse received orders to travel to England in preparation for moving onward to the western front. Colebourn smuggled Winnipeg onto a troop ship and across the ocean to an encampment near Stonehenge, where she amused herself wandering among the ancient stone ruins and occasionally giving visitors there a start.
The horrors of the trenches awaited, though, and Harry Colebourn arranged for the London Zoo to house her. He left for battle, always returning to visit her on his infrequent leaves. Meanwhile, the affectionate and gentle Winnipeg, now known as Winnie, proved a popular attraction—so popular that, at the end of World War I, Colebourn decided to donate Winnie to the London Zoo permanently.
Three years later, a little boy celebrating his first birthday was given a stuffed teddy bear, so named for American president and conservationist Theodore Roosevelt but marketed in England under the trade name “Edward Bear.” Christopher Robin Milne came to love two things: his toy bear, which he would cherish all his life, and visits to the London Zoo to see Winnie the real-life bear. From the moment he could speak, he called his toy bear Winnie, adding the name “Pooh,” which apparently was the name he used for all animals.
Christopher Robin’s father, Alexander Alan Milne, had also served on the western front. By the time Christopher Robin was born, he had written several mystery novels. But Christopher Robin demanded a different kind of story, and so A.A. Milne began to invent stories that featured his son’s two favorite bears, skillfully weaving the tales into the books Winnie-the-Pooh, published in 1926, and The House at Pooh Corner, published two years later.
Though in adulthood he declared himself “haunted by Pooh,” Christopher Robin Milne was a generous donor to the London Zoo, as his father had been. After he died on April 20, 1996, his beloved stuffed bear, which he had kept all his life, traveled across the Atlantic. It is now on display in the Children’s Room at the New York Public Library.
Winnipeg the Bear lived until the age of 20, a ripe old age for a bear. She died in 1934, gentle to the end. A statue of her stands at the London Zoo today. Another statue of Winnie and her beloved Capt. Harry Colebourn, who died in 1947 after a distinguished career as a veterinarian, stands in a park in Winnipeg. And in White River, Ontario, where the cub came into Harry’s life and ours, a museum now stands to chronicle the life of that beloved bear, real and in story.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.