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Bearskin

Review

Bearskin

Rice Moore is hopeful that perhaps, at long last, he can make a fresh start. After serving time in prison, he’s now halfway across the country, in rural Virginia, with a new name (Rick) and a new job working for a foundation that doesn’t seem to care about his checkered past. Rice, who does have a background as a biological researcher, has been hired as a caretaker for an old growth forest preserve, a haven for a rich variety of species and a treasure trove for researchers.

It’s also, however, a treasure trove for poachers, as Rice soon discovers. It turns out that someone has been baiting bears, killing them with poisoned bolts shot from a crossbow, and harvesting their paws and gallbladders, which are prized in some Asian medicinal traditions. After a mysterious mushroom gatherer tips him off to the mutilated bears, Rice grows increasingly fixated on figuring out who’s responsible, especially when he learns that his predecessor caretaker --- a young woman named Sara, who had been studying lizards and snakes --- suffered a brutal attack that put an end to her time at the remote lodge.

"BEARSKIN’s language is taut and tense. Virtually every sentence is crafted to keep readers slightly on edge... Readers will be hard-pressed to put down this propulsive narrative once they pick it up."

Rice’s investigation of the bear poachers gets tangled up with bringing Sara’s unknown attackers to justice, which in turn is tangled up in his ongoing horror and guilt over what happened to his girlfriend after the two of them got caught up in drug trafficking at the Arizona-Mexico border. Along the way, he is sucked into small-town politics as well as into interactions with outlaw motorcycle gangs and an undercover DEA agent.

As Rice wanders the mountains --- often shrouded by a ghillie suit --- and sleeps less and less, he seems to grow closer in temperament to the bears themselves, acting on instinct, becoming a predator, and even at times becoming disengaged from human consciousness. But Rice has a very real mystery to solve, and he’s not sure who to trust --- and before too long he realizes that the Mexican cartels he traveled hundreds of miles to escape might not be so distant after all.

BEARSKIN’s language is taut and tense. Virtually every sentence is crafted to keep readers slightly on edge, just as Rice himself is incapable of truly relaxing, even surrounded by the natural world that both astounds and sustains him. Readers will be hard-pressed to put down this propulsive narrative once they pick it up.

James A. McLaughlin’s impressive, at times harrowing debut is suffused with violent images, including disturbing animal imagery as well as even more brutal scenes of human violence and torture. BEARSKIN illustrates the potential of humans to be both savage and gracious toward one another.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 15, 2018

Bearskin
by James A. McLaughlin

  • Publication Date: June 12, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062742795
  • ISBN-13: 9780062742797