Monday, January 01, 2007

The Grizzly Maze by Nick Jans

This book is one that generated a lot of mixed feelings. I'm still not sure how I feel about it, entirely. I'd best back up, though, and explain how I ended up reading The Grizzly Maze.

July, 2006: Bookfool and family are spending the night in Kenai, Alaska (or, thereabouts), ensconced in a hotel that was originally a cannery. The room is a frightful fifty-four degrees when we arrive. We crank the heater, use the community bathrooms down the hall, and check out the lobby area of our building. In the lobby are some nice, comfy chairs, a coffee-maker, soft drink and snack machines, and a single shelf that slices two walls. The two branches of shelving contain a range of popular fiction (Tom Clancy, for example) as well as a good selection of Alaskan authors.

Bookfool locates a book by Nick Jans, cracks it open, and reads until the room warms up. Completely enraptured, she carries the book into one of the two adjoining bedrooms where the Bookfool Family (minus the eldest, who just returned from France) is staying. The youngster's room doesn't actually have a heater in it and is still frigid. So, he sets aside the Tom Clancy book he started in the lobby and goes to the check-in desk with Mr. Bookfool. They also have DVDs to check out and a DVD player hangs below the television set in the warmer of the two rooms.

Kiddo and Mr. Bookfool return with a moronic movie selection, which they proceed to turn on in the only warm room. The lobby is now colder than the warmest of the bedrooms. Bookfool attempts to read more, with the first movie blasting away, but is basically ADD and fails. She hastily writes " The Last Light Breaking - Nick Jans" in a notepad and eats pretty much everything in sight - trail mix, smoked salmon, hard-boiled eggs, all packed in a cooler; these are supper because the Bookfool Family did not realize they were going to be in the boonies and all have chosen not to go to the cannery's restaurant. They're tired, they're cold, and they don't feel like buying expensive food. Bookfool yearns for a bath and whines about the lack of a nice tub, then falls asleep.

In Anchorage, Bookfool later explores Title Wave bookstore. She has read about the store in Peter Jenkins' book Looking for Alaska but is using a backpack as her purse and chooses not to turn over all her valuables while perusing . . . store policy, you see. However, before she's sort of kicked out she scopes out the Alaskan section, which goes on seemingly forever. Nope, no copies of The Last Light Breaking. They have many copies of Looking for Alaska, though. Not surprising, as Jenkins did give them some free advertising. It's a great store, by the way, if you can bear to part with your luggage-sized purse.

Back home in Mississippi, Bookfool gets online and searches for The Last Light Breaking. Apparently, Jans' first book is only available used - and not necessarily at a decent price. Bookfool hastens to Paperback Swap and adds the book to her wish list. She notes that Jans also wrote about Timothy Treadwell, the bear-loving fellow who was killed with his companion. Bookfool recalls seeing a brief news clip about their deaths, including shots of bear country taken from a helicopter. A few weeks after Bookfool's return from Alaska, a friend views a movie about Treadwell and says, "He was very disturbed." Bookfool becomes curious and adds the book to her list, thinking, "Well, it's one way to read Nick Jans. Plus, I'd like to know what the deal was with the crazy bear dude."

Eventually, The Grizzly Maze arrives. The Last Light Breaking, unfortunately, has still not become available. Bookfool is in Nonfiction Mode and the book grabs her. But, it's not a pleasant read. The fact is, the book is an attempt to unravel the mystery of why Treadwell and his companion were not just mauled but eaten. Okay, yuck. And, were the two bears that were shot by National Park Service employees, who found their behavior threatening (one of whom did have a stomach full of people), guilty of attacking the couple as well as the rangers with predatory intent? Or did they just happen to find some food, pre-killed, and munch down? If the bear(s) turned predatory, was Treadwell complicit in his own death? Were the park rangers in some way also responsible, since they warned him but basically allowed Treadwell to continue breaking human-to-bear proximity rules?

*Warning: Possible spoilers and So Long it Might Put You to Sleep*

Jans arrived in Katmai National Park after the bears had been shot and eaten by other bears but before the scent of death had left the air. He ducked under signs warning of danger and denying access, in order to check out the campsite, but was spooked by a bear and fell, triggering an old ankle injury and causing the sad death of a Nikon camera body. But, not before he managed to snap off some photos that basically don't show much of anything unless you like looking at piles of dirt made by bears. Another question should be: Was the death of a Nikon worth the risk?

Back to the story. Timothy Treadwell is described from many angles. His history as a swimmer with a college scholarship that he lost due to injury, the fact that he glossed over certain aspects of his life in his own book, his showmanship, outgoing personality, years of drug use and eventual discovery that bears not only tolerated him but seemed to trust him on a trip to Alaska, yearly camping trips in which he continuously violated proximity rules, growing fame as he founded Grizzly People with former-girlfriend Jewel (not the singer), his appearance in various film productions and backing by well-heeled and sometimes well-known people (as well as some major companies, such as Patagonia), his tendency to be a bit of a con man who skirted rules and told fibs. All these characteristics are described with reservation of judgment held back.

Jans did describe Treadwell and his death in decent journalistic style. However, he approached from one angle and then another, interviewed someone who considered Treadwell a friend and then followed up with a bear scientist's scathing opinion, etc. I found the circling of the issues a bit confusing. Half the time, I was of the opinion that Treadwell was, indeed, a nut case. And, then Jans would leap over to an interview of some close friend and Treadwell suddenly seemed sane - misled and even naive, definitely a con man, but sane.

The gist is that Jans wanted to get to the heart of the issues and untangle a few mysteries that, in fact, couldn't be solved. Bears are wild animals. They avoid and ignore people, in many cases, but they can turn on a dime. There's no doubt that Treadwell was camped in a terrible place, right on the food path and during a bad year. But, was his presence irritating to a particular bear? Was the bear showing his dominance, treating Treadwell as if he were a badly-behaved younger bear? Did a bear attack out of hunger? These are questions that can't truly be answered. Jans tries to stay neutral, but I think part of his intent was to diffuse the angry blast condemning Treadwell for his own death while explaining that Treadwell's behavior was, in many ways, damaging - particularly to bears and potentially to people who misunderstand their dangerous, wild natures.

*End of potential for spoiling*

In the end, I decided Jans wrote an interesting book but it was a little too gruesome for me. I should have known better. Before leaving for Alaska, I read Larry Kaniut's Alaska Bear Tales (which Jans refers to as "a solid representation of the 'bear chew' genre") and had a nightmare that a bear sliced me open with a single claw. Gruesome tales are not my thing. I also thought Jans was just a teensy bit biased, but not necessarily in a bad way. He spoke to people who knew and loved Treadwell, one of whom was painfully grieving and wore her Curious George pajamas to the interview in her home. Treadwell was obviously a gregarious guy but not one who knew bear biology; people either loved him or hated him. Some think his activism for bears caused nothing but harm; some think he was basically harmless. Jans even adds some statistics about bear maulings and deaths.

In short, Timothy Treadwell in death becomes a mighty lightning rod crackling with emotion--one that encomapsses an amazing spectrum of human attitudes and ideologies. To some, Tomothy is a martyr; to others, a fool; some cast him as a cynical, self-serving narcissist, even a menace to wildlife. All the same man, the same basic set of circumstances. If nothing else, the death of Timothy Treadwell reflects the extent to which we project our own beliefs upon the universe.

Overall, it was a pretty good book in that Jans chased down and circled all the issues. The problems I had with it were that I should have known better than to read such a sad, horrible story and that people can only theorize about what happened - nobody can truly answer all the questions about how and why Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard died. I guess I felt a little dangled. But, I still want to read The Last Light Breaking. Anyone have a copy they want to loan me?

I'm not going to rate this book because I thought it was well-written but too disturbing. I would rate it low because of the fact that I wanted everything all neatly tied up - mysteries all answered. That wasn't going to happen and the author shouldn't be penalized for not having the answers. He described the circumstances in great detail, interviewed people who had all manner of opinions, and did a truly good job of keeping his journalistic integrity. A little slant peeks through, but not enough to hotly criticize. Still, I kind of wish I hadn't read it because sometimes I can imagine the screams and see the faces of those two people. Their death was horrible. My favorite quote was a bit of advice a Tlingit (native Alaska Indian) man gave Nick Jans when he was a newcomer to Chichagof Island:

"If I'm going out to hunt or pick berries," he said, "I always do this: clap two or three times and say, 'Grandfather, I'm coming into your woods. I won't stay long and I don't want to bother you.' Always let Grandfather know what you're up to, and he'll let you by."

Other tales of Jans' personal experiences in Alaska tantalized me. Darn it, I want to read his first book!

Since I'm currently reading a very graphic war memoir, I should add a brief explanation. I think I enjoy reading memoirs from WWII because they describe a time when people understood sacrifice. I'm not reading for the descriptions of young men dying tragic deaths but for the narrative of one man who showed great strength in horrible circumstances. And, I must say, so far To Hell and Back is truly amazing.

So, on The Grizzly Maze: recommended with reservation for good writing, too gruesome for me, not willing to rate it. Okay, this one took forever to write so I'm going to try to get a little circulation back into my legs. Happy Tuesday!


  1. I'll skip on The Grizzly Maze. I hope you find a copy of the other book.

    BTW, did you enjoy your family trip to Alaska?

  2. Wow-I'm so jealous of your trip to Alaska!

    I highly recommend avoiding The Kite Runner. It's awful. The author can't write, so instead he throws in a ridiculous amount of drama: pedophilia, cancer, etc. I only read it because I was in St. Petersburg, and the study abroad program had a tiny library. Can you tell I'm still bitter? lol

  3. oh, and I was meaning to ask you about The English Patient. I've read the author's second book, Anil's Ghost and wasn't impressed. Was The English Patient good?

  4. Booklogged,

    I think it's worth skipping, just to avoid the yuck.

    Oh, yes, we had a blast in Alaska. The days are long in the summer, so we just kept going and going and going like 3 little Energizer bunnies. We all want to go back. :)


    I highly recommend a visit to Alaska. Until we went on that vacation, I'd simply closed my eyes to the nature around us. I got so darned excited about the beauty and the animals that I came home and noticed more in my own yard. Strange, but a wonderful effect that's continued.

    Okay, I can tell you didn't like The Kite Runner. :) Wow, St. Petersburg! Lucky chick! I did once flip through The Kite Runner and it didn't pass my flip test. Usually, that's a good way for me to assess whether or not a book will hold my attention. Thanks for sharing your thoughts; you've convinced me!

    As to The English Patient: I think Michael Ondaatje is an author that people either love or hate because he's a poet and he writes with rhythm. Some people are totally put off by that style; so, while I really loved The English Patient, I'd guess that if you disliked Anil's Ghost you might want to give it a skip.

  5. I think Grizzly Man was the documentary about Treadwell. A friend recommended it to me, but I couldn't deal with the creep/morbid/disturbing fact that the footage is from his last expedition minus the death and gore.

    I'm with you. The bear dreams would definitely kick in if I read or saw anything from the chew genre, and I already have enough shark dreams as it is.

  6. Andi,

    That's the one. He has an intro describing Grizzly Man and how shocked he was to find that it made Treadwell seem completely nutso. I don't think I could handle the film. It was bad enough reading about the two people dying so tragically.

    Shark nightmares, eh? I've never had one of those. I used to have a lot of insecurity nightmares - sliding downhill backwards and forgetting my pen and paper, then finding out I missed all but one class. LOL Now, I dream of big, airy houses because I feel claustrophobic. I have faced the fact that I'm odd and accepted it. :)

  7. Anonymous8:24 PM

    I'll skip Grizzly Maze too but I sort of feel I've read it now, but w/o the gruesome bits. Thank you! Very good review.

  8. Carrie,

    Thanks, that's a huge compliment. :)

  9. Anonymous2:36 PM

    Last Light Breaking has recently been republished in paperpack by Alaska Northwest books, ISBN 9780882404585. $16.95. In case you still want to read it! --JT


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