What the Bear Said

What the Bear Said by W.D. Valgardson

What the Bear Said

For a thousand years, its inhabitants passed down oral histories that included fantastical fables as a way to understand their strange land. For settlers escaping starvation in the wake of volcanic eruptions and economic hardship, Manitoba's Interlake area held further mystery

Winner of the 2012 INL Reads!

A land of volcanoes, geothermal pools, and barren wilderness, Iceland is full of mists and mystery. 

Bears, wolves, fish, forests, swamps, harsh winters, insect-infested summers, the unpredictable waters of Lake Winnipeg, people disappearing because of forces of nature or forces of the human heart, all provide a wealth of material from which Turnstone Press's first published author draws his inspiration.

A bear whose thoughts fill a fisherman's mind like ink in water, an ancient sturgeon who rescues a fair maid from drowning, and mischievous Christmas sprites who protect a poor girl from a nightmarish marriage: these and more tales combine a canon of Icelandic folklore with the landscape and wildlife of Canada for a truly absorbing reading experience.

In this collection of stories, W.D. Valgardson creates new legends, capturing the settlers' experience in New Iceland: how they tried to explain the unexplainable, and preserve the memories of loved ones for future generations. Blurring lines between reality and fantasy, Valgardson continues to be one of Canada's foremost storytellers

Winner of the 2012 INL Reads!

Short-listed for the 2012 Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher

Advanced Praise

A magical, thoughtful meditation on the bones of storytelling, What the Bear said showcases Valgardson's uncanny ability to meld deceptively simple prose, folktales and psychological suspense. From the inky darkness of a bear's thoughts to the trek through troll-infested mountains, his stories quietly bring the reader back to a place we only remember in dreams.” –

Eden Robinson, author of Monkey Beach

What the Bear Said is a marvellous collection of fables. The stories are immediate, the characters, both human and supernatural, crackle with life, as myth, harsh reality and superstition touch the lives of Icelandic immigrants, often in thrilling and heartbreaking ways

W.P. Kinsella, author of Dance Me Outside


What the Bear Said is a masterful array of tales by a skilled artist and storyteller. Accessible and engaging, it artfully combines elements of the tale or fable with the modern short story to re-interpret the lives of the early Icelandic Canadian settlers of Manitoba. A multicultural cross-genre work, it heralds a new hybrid form of Canadian literature, well worth reading and emulating.

Sally Ito, Prairie Fire Review of Books

Valgardson's prose is as spare and sparse and sparkling as the Icelandic sagas that clearly inspire it.

Tom Oleson, Winnipeg Free Press

Book Club Questions

When emigrants come to Canada, do they bring their beliefs with them? Can you think of instances in your own family of beliefs, ideas that were brought to Canada?

Magic is a way for people to explain the inexplicable. Nowadays, there is a lot more scientific knowledge that explains why landslides occur or bad weather ruins crops. What do some of the characters in the stories attribute bad events to?

What did you find surprising about the factual material in the stories?

In Iceland there are no large animals except for the occasional polar bear that drifts ashore on an ice flow. What kinds of animals would the settlers had to have faced?

How does the author use magical creatures to demonstrate his view of life?

In the 1800s, Iceland was the poorest country in Europe. What details in the stories

make it clear that the settlers were poor?

In “Windigo” why does the author make the hero of the story, Jón Litli. Why not make the hero a large, strong man?

Do you think that Hjálmar, the main character in the story, Freyja, will get married in Canada? Why wouldn‘t he get married in Iceland? Who do you think he might marry? Is his reason the same or different that Sigga in “Sigga’s Prayer”?

In “The New World” why do the ghosts weep? Do you think that the ghosts might also represent the immigrants? Why might the immigrants weep?

What do the stories tell you about the fate of the magical beings? Why do you think that might be their fate?

“Loftur” is a love story but it is about more than just the love of Sigurbjörg and Páll. What other type of love is in the story?

In “Shlandy” does Miskew really want Mary’s wedding to be for her? If not, who does he want it to be for?

Have you ever heard of a skuggabaldur? Do you know of any other mystical animals in which people believe?

What is unique about the settings of these stories? Do these settings make the stories more interesting?

When the stories are looked at all together, can you see overall themes emerging?

How does the author want us to feel about the characters?

These stories are about immigrants to Manitoba in the 1800s. Is there anything about their experience that is similar to the experience of immigrants today?

From the stories can you tell what challenges faced the immigrants?

The author criticizes or implies criticism of some people in the stories. How does he do this and what is it that he is criticizing?

Why does Halldor shoot the wolf? What does it reveal about him as a person?

What do you think happened to Ingrid? Does it make you feel happy or sad?

In folklore it can be very dangerous to wish for things. Are there any cases of wishing that has serious results in the stories?

The huldafolk are just like us, except they’re invisible. Plus they’re smarter, more beautiful, handsomer, have beautiful homes in cliffs and rocks, nice clothes, good food and have great parties. If you lived in a place where everyone was poor, do you think you might believe in people who had all the things you’d like? Can you think of any instances today of people admiring, even worshipping, people who they think have more money, better, more exciting lives?

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206-100 Arthur Street

Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

R3B 1H3

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