I'm such a big fan of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series that my youngest son's middle name is Spenser. But I'm less certain about Chasing the Bear, Parker's first "Young Spenser" novel. On one hand it gives longtime readers their first glimpse of something new: the character as a child, in this case age fourteen. But as a YA novel, it's that familiarity with the character that presents the biggest problem.
The book begins with the adult Spenser (a Boston private eye as adept at quoting literature and cooking gourmet dinners as he is at busting heads) telling his long-time girlfriend Susan about his childhood, and these interludes frequently interrupt the main story. Since Susan is a psychiatrist, this lets her discuss motives and explanations for the younger Spenser's behavior, as well as pointing out how those adolescent patterns manifest in his adulthood. And this is the first of the book's issues for YA readers. While longtime fans understand the dynamic between Spenser and Susan, the intended audience might feel talked-down-to by these sections. And yet in the larger sense of the Spenser series, these sections are indespinsible. So this creates a conflict between the two intended audiences that the book never satisfactorily resolves.
The second, larger issue is the character of Spenser himself. Before this, the most we'd ever learned about his childhood was in the 1991 novel Pastime: he was raised in Wyoming by his father and his mother's bachelor brothers, his mother having died in childbirth. Chasing the Bear shows that masculine dynamic at work, filtered through a kind of benign male righteousness that Spenser himself would one day embody. His father and uncles treat him as an equal, take their cooperative parenting very seriously, and spend a great deal of time teaching him both how to fight, and how to know when to fight.
The problem for YA readers is that the teenage Spenser is essentially no different than the adult one. He has doubts, but he seldom errs, and he's never overcome by fear. The adult Spenser has years of experience to explain this; the teen Spenser has only his instincts. To present him as perfectly formed, even at age fourteen, makes it awfully hard for other doubt-filled adolescents to sympathize with him.
Still, Parker can surely tell a rip-snorting story, and the book moves like a shot; I finished it in an afternoon. In the main plot, one of young Spenser's friends, a girl named Jeannie, is kidnapped by her abusive father, and Spenser has to improvise a rescue and escape. To Parker's credit, Spenser's tactics are entirely reasonable and not beyond the capabilities of a teen. This adventure gives Spenser a reputation in his small town, which becomes an issue as racial tension between Latinos and whites come to a boil.
The book has the Spenser formula: plenty of action, a few funny lines and a string of moral dilemmas. As an adult fan, I welcomed this as insight into one of my favorite literary characters; but I had a hard time imagining myself at fourteen, reading this book and identifying with the self-assured, mistake-proof teen Spenser.
I'll tell my son about his namesake, of course. And when he's older, I'll recommend some of the best in the series (Ceremony, Pale Kings and Princes, Cold Service). In between those times, will I recommend Chasing the Bear? I don't know yet. It's a good book, but maybe not for its intended audience, and that presents a dilemma worthy of Spenser at his best.
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