On Bear Mountain
Don’t pick up this book looking for a fast read. Instead, expect a lovingly told story that can meander at times but makes you want to soak each word up and maybe appreciate your family a bit more. Because On Bear Mountain is above all other things a story about the power of family.
Ursula Powell and Quentin Riconni come together because of an iron bear statue. Ursula grew up in Tiberville as the daughter of a poor family. Her father was responsible for finding an artist to create a sculpture commissioned by a member of the town’s wealthy family. He found Richard Riconni, Quentin’s father. The resulting sculpture, created out of town memorabilia, horrified some of the town but meant something special to the rest of it, especially Ursula’s father, and eventually everyone in Ursula’s family. The bear has also meant something to the Riconni family. After Richard Riconni committed suicide, his wife remained devoted to him. The bear means the world to her and she believes it has been destroyed. After Quentin finds out the sculpture still exists, he vows to find it for his mother.
The bear is a powerful image throughout this novel, woven into the history of the Powell family and legends. Ursula would be happy to get rid of the bear. She’s always thought her father’s obsession over it was detrimental to her family, as were all of his dreams. She’s determined to be unsentimental and to make it on her own, breaking the string of bad luck that exists in her family. Well-educated, strong and unique, Ursula is the perfect person to care for her family’s legacy. Ending up back in Tiberville cements the circle of events in her life and brings her to the eventual realization that family is everything, and that she can let a man into her heart and not lose herself.
Quentin is a tough guy. A former car thief and Army officer, he has also determined never to love. His father’s actions when he was a boy – leaving his family nearly destitute to work on his art and find a patroness – affected Quentin deeply. Quentin has issues to resolve, but his vow to remain alone goes out the window when he meets Ursula. Sort of. These soulmates recognize each other and resist the pull, but they can’t. They are very obviously soulmates in many ways, especially in their education, attitudes, and issues related to their fathers. There’s not a lot of heat here, but there are lots of intense feelings.
Tiberville is filled with interesting folks. The Tiber relatives own the town but because of a long-standing feud with the Powells, they don’t associate much. Family is family, however, and they are important. So are the artists who live on the Powell farm that Ursula inherits. Most important, though, is Ursula’s autistic brother. He believes he can talk to the bear, and in many ways it speaks to him. It is, in fact, the thing that made him begin speaking at all. It is his welfare that is most important when Quentin comes to buy the statue.
The way Smith weaves all these threads together and uses the bear as the knot that ties them all together is simply phenomenal. I mean, an iron bear as the main character? I’d never have believed it would work, but it does. If you’re looking for a slice of Southern life that you can savor for a few hours, this is it.