Cover illustration © Jean Cassels.
Dickon, a boy in Elizabethan London, has fallen on hard times. He was a promising student until his father died and his family found little money left after debts were paid. Dickon’s mother remarried, but her new husband did not want the boy around and apprenticed him to a tannery, work which he hates. When his master sends him on an errand to London’s notorious Bear Pit, where wild bears are brought to be abused and tortured for the amusement of paying patrons, the boy’s life is changed when a bear cub, newly arrived, turns to Dickon for help. The bear handlers are amazed by the boy’s ability to calm the wild beast, and the two quickly bond. The owner of the Bear Pit strikes a bargain with Dickon: he can return any time he likes if he will train the bear cub to perform tricks. Dickon accepts even though it will put his apprenticeship in jeopardy. Soon enough Dickon’s troubles grow when he is accused of witchcraft by a jealous bear handler, and he and the cub are forced to flee London with the help of friends. Before long they have joined a troupe of traveling gypsy jugglers and acrobats, who bring the boy and the bear home with them to the mountains of France. Dickon can find a new life with them if he can train the bear, but old enemies soon turn up and threaten his new life.
At first I found the cruelty to animals in this book hard to take, but as the story went on I became so invested in the characters that I couldn’t put it down. Excellent storytelling, interesting history, and the author fills out the injustices of the time with insights into the bear’s own mind through brief passages of his thoughts.