5 Stars Soldier Bear Bibi Dumon Tak Laura Watkinson Philip Hopman Eerdmans Books for Young Readers ....................
When a group of Polish soldiers stationed in Iran during World War II trade a penknife, a tin of beef, and some money for an orphaned bears cub, it’s the start of a very special friendship—and a remarkable story.
Voytek, as they name the bear, travels with the soldiers to Egypt, then on to the battlefields of Italy, and finally to Scotland after the war ends. He learns to carry bombs for the company, corners a spy in the camp, and keeps the soldiers constantly entertained with his antics. Voytek’s mischief gets him into plenty of trouble along the way, but he also provides unexpected encouragement and comfort amid the grim realities of war.
Soldier Bear is a fictionalized story based on real facts. The Polish Army actually enlisted a brown bear into their army. Five Polish soldiers, captured when Germany and Russia fought together, then set free when Germany turned on Russia, joined the British army to fight Germany. Stationed in Iran, the soldiers ran ammunition to the line where the British troops were fighting.
On the way to their post, the soldiers came upon a young boy in the dessert carrying a brown sack. Inside the sack was a brown bear cub. The cub was frail and starving. The soldiers gave the boy food and money in exchange for the bear cub. The soldiers nursed the cub back to heath using makeshift baby bottles filled with milk. Soon the bear was better.
The soldiers named him Wojtek (Voy-tek), which means smiling warrior. Voytek (spelling used in the book), loved to take showers and would use all the camp’s water supply. Once, Voytek raided a female tent, putting their underwear on his head. When caught doing these kinds of things, Voytek would sit down, put his big paws over his eyes and rock. This reminded me of a small child who thinks if he cannot see you, you cannot see him.
Voytek enlisted in the army, becoming Private Voytek. He was still the camp mascot, but he also helped in the war effort. Voytek would take ammunition to the soldiers on the front line. One such mission was at Monte Cassino, where the Germans finally surrendered. It was a dangerous mission. Voytek was often in the line of fire but left without a scratch. Voytek did inflict a few scratches when he played with the men. They loved to wrestle and Voytek always won. At six feet tall and four hundred pounds, Voytek was no match.
A brown bear was not the only animal in the camp. There was a Dalmatian named Dottie, who became Voytek’s best friend, and a monkey named Kaska who rode atop another dog named Stalin. Kaska did not like Voytek. He would throw whatever he could find at the gentle bear, usually hitting him in the head. Stalin was the monkey’s getaway car, speeding off before Voytek could respond. Still, Voytek was the one that inspired the troops. They even wore a patch on their caps of Voytek carrying ammunition. The same scene was an emblem on the side of their vehicles.
I could go on and on telling you about this fascinating brown bear and this interesting novel. Originally written in Dutch, the novel lost very little in translation. I love interesting, but odd, things or events. Soldier Bear, written with historical accuracy in regards to the war and Voytek, fictionalized the five soldiers, making a novel children will enjoy while learning a bit about World War II and Poland’s role in the war.
These soldiers are hilarious. Their banter back and forth is so funny the book can seem more like a comedy than a war story. They treat Voytek with respect and love him beyond words. There is nothing too hard about the war that would frighten children, but it is not sugarcoated either. Boys will especially like Soldier Bear, which is also a good story for reluctant readers.
Soldier Bear is not a war story. There is little about gunfights and battles. If you’re looking for a typical war story this isn’t it. If you want a heart-warming story about a pretty cool animal, this is the one to read. Soldier Bear is a love story. It tells the story of five Polish soldiers, who saved a dying bear cub, who in turn helped keep these men, and others, alive during a horrendous war. Voytek kept their spirits up with his antics and games. He gave them strength to fight and the affection they missed.
I love this story and could have read a hundred more stories about Voytek’s antics. I think kids and their parents will be inspired after reading Soldier Bear. The realities of the war are there but without the nastiness. Mostly, this is an uplifting story that few will have heard about in America. Voytek is a hero. The story is so interesting, the bear so unexpected in a war, and the men so hilarious that to miss this novel would be a shame. Soldier Bear is a wonderful story, wonderfully written and accurately translated.
Batchelder Award, Winner (2012)
American Library Association, Notable Children’s Books list (2012)
Paterson Prize for Books for Young People, Honor Book (2012)
BBC Story with video from WWII (Voytek) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-15736812