People who have never been to northern Virginia don’t appreciate that it’s a whole different world from the rest of the state. My day consists of going into million dollar houses* to walk the dogs of well-to-do yuppies, hitting up a few Little Free Libraries, playing with my chihuahua, watching booktube on the flatscreen, and maybe a visit to the organic market. (* – To be fair, a million dollar house in my area is just a house in most of the country. The big McMansions go for 1.2 – 2 million dollars here.)
Bearskin takes place in part of that other world deep in the Appalachian mountains. This is the land of forest, working class or working poor, trucks, hunting, and hillbillies. (Hillbillies are rednecks at elevation.) Rice Moore flees the desert he’s always known and the Mexican drug cartels to the sanctuary of a Virginia mountain preserve. All is mostly well until he finds bears turning up skinned and missing parts on sanctuary property.
This story is as much about Rice and his past as it is about the land he takes care of. We hear Rice’s story in bits and pieces as the present story of the nature preserve unfolds. Despite being a beer-drinking country fella, Rice is also a scientist. He is a complicated and flawed character I enjoyed getting to know. He’ll risk his life to care for the preserve but he has also taken the lives of others.
It was described as a thriller but it had other elements that makes this label feel misplaced. It was literary and smart while still being simple and compelling storytelling. There were even a few words I had to look up but it never felt pretentious. This is an impressive feat given it paired big words with rural Appalachia. There were elements of magical realism provided with the forest taking on its own role as a character. The thriller element still exists with outlaw biker gangs, local criminals, and Mexican sinaloas.
I made a playlist to have in the background. I’m not exactly sure why but I loved losing myself in this story and this world and the music helped. Maybe because it was so close and yet so far from my own. It was similar to The Trees by Ali Shaw but much rougher and grittier, more grounded in reality while still being mystical. 4.5 stars. Definitely recommend.