I stumbles across this historical novel when I was at the library a couple of weeks ago. It would not even have caught my attention except for the fact that I had read a book on the animals of World War I just a bit before. When I saw the name Winnie with Great War, I grabbed it to see if it was what I thought. It was!
Winnie was a mascot animal for the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, a group of veterinary troops. Winnie was a black bear. Both of these make her a unique character. Put them together and she was quite amazing. And, when you know that Winnie became the inspiration for Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, she becomes even more intriguing.
Written by the great-granddaughter of the man who originally purchased Winnie, this is a novel based on the first hand account of Lieutenant Colebourn’s diary. The story is being told by a mother to her son, as she tells him the story of the real Winnie-the-Pooh, his Bear.
The story begins with Winnie as a small bear cub with her mother. She is curious and inquisitive, exploring the world around her. After her mother is trapped and killed, Winnie is tempted by a young boy (the trapper’s grandson) to follow him hom. Winnie does and stays there. After a while, as she grows, she becomes a problem so the grandfather must get rid of Winnie but he promises not to hurt her. The trapper takes Winnie to the train station, trying to get someone to purchase her. It is mostly soldiers at the station and a soldier just can’t have a pet, let alone a black bear. But one young man was touched by the sight of the bear and came back for her, purchasing her for $20.
Harry Colebourn was this young man and he was a part of the veterinary corps. He tended horses and such. Winnie, though, had a special ability that Harry didn’t know about – she was able to talk with animals and so was a very helpful assistant. She understood the animals, all of them (squirrels, rats, horses, dogs, etc.) and so she could act as a mediator, so to speak.
Harry had not intended to take Winnie with him across the ocean. But when the time came to go to the front, there was Winnie on the ship with him. She was just such a morale booster for the troops – man and animal alike – that she went to the Salisbury Plain to train. She enjoyed her time with the troops but they loved her too much to take her to the front. So they sent her to the Zoo in London. Harry loved her so much that he wanted her to be safe. And she was.
Not only was the Zoo safety for Winnie, it gave her a change to help others. Many came needing hope in their lives and Winnie was able to cheer them, to show them hope, to make them feel better. As she remembered this mission, Winnie was a showstopper at the Zoo.
After the war ended, Harry came and visited. But he saw how wonderful Winnie’s life was at the zoo, how she had friends among both the animals and the people. He knew she needed to stay and so he left her there. After a while, a young 4 year old boy began visiting and become friends with Winnie. Her showed her his stuffed Piglet and they become fast friends. His father watched over them as they enjoyed each other’s company and not too many years later, Mr. Milne wrote the story of Winnie-the-Pooh.
I really enjoyed reading through this and the interest with which the story is told. The mother is telling the boy a bedtime story about his Bear and as she talks he sometimes interrupts and some clarification is made. These are truly interesting interruptions, such as the one about the goat from Sascatchewan. Also, there are graphics throughout the story that are the diary entries made by Harry. It helps us remember that the story is real, though things like the exact conversations are made imagined.
At the end, there is a bit about the family and some black and white photographs related to Winnie. There are some of Harry and Winnie but there is also one of Christopher Robin and Winnie.
This was a fabulous little book and would make a lovely read-aloud. I have to return it to the library but I do think I will check it out again to read aloud to Miss J. She would love this book.
Lori, At Home.