Book review: ‘Bear Shadow’ by John Neely Davis

“Bear Shadow”

By John Neely Davis

BEAR SHADOW COVER

Full disclosure No. 1: I am in a bi-monthly critique roundtable with John Neely Davis and six other authors, a collective in which we bounce around ideas, share in each others’ struggles and offer no-holds-barred suggestions – mostly constructive criticism – on our works in progress.

Full disclosure No. 2: Having said that, let me add this: I heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes a good story, backed by great writing. Heart-warming and heart-breaking. Thrilling and gut-wrenching. Rich in details about what life might have been like in the era it spans (1870s-1940s) – and richer in characters you will come to love and – a few, to despise. “Bear Shadow” has it all.

But don’t just take my word for it. “Bear Shadow” was the 2014 winner of the Janice Keck Literary Award, a ringing endorsement bestowed by the Williamson County Public Library.

“Bear Shadow” is actually a prequel to John’s earlier novel “The Sixth William.” It tells the arduous 70-year journey of one Geoff Ridges, born in Australia to a struggling sheephearder and Aboriginal mother. His petty criminal father flees to America with young Geoff and they land in Virginia before eventually settling in rural Tennessee. Geoff grows to manhood with the aid of a Melungeon teacher and her blind husband. The adult Geoff must deal with love, regrets, treachery, racism, incest and murder – all themes that continue to fill newspapers today. It is a life well-lived, one with the highest of highs and lowest of lows. And it will hold your attention, page after page.

The title of the book – “Bear Shadow” – has a double meaning, at least for me. One day a year, in the mountainous region near Geoff’s Tennessee homestead, the setting sun casts a giant shadow that literally resembles a bear’s snout, ears and front paws. On the other hand, it might describe the book’s overall theme of how much we struggle with life lessons. Some days, you tree the bear; some days, the bear trees you.

John also writes Western short stories and in many ways, “Bear Shadow” reminds me of a novel that might have been written by the late, great Western writer Louis L’Amour, who described himself “as a troubadour, a village taleteller, the man in the shadows of the campfire. … a good storyteller.”

John knows how to tell a story, but more important, he know how to write one. Not everyone who writes well is a great speaker, and great speakers aren’t necessarily good writers. John is both. You won’t be disappointed.

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