Cynthia Ozick was born in 1928 in the Bronx to a Jewish family of Russian origin. In her works, she often addresses themes such as Yiddish, the Shoah, doubt, or the misunderstandings that derives from the clash of cultures. She is concerned not only with the dynamic between being Jewish and the diaspora, but also with that between being a Jew and being a writer. Along with Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud or Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick is one of the leading figures of the Jewish American novel.
In The Bear Boy, Cynthia Ozick handles themes such as exile, dispossession, betrayal, destruction. All the characters are figures of exile: Rose Meadows, parentless and homeless, the Mitwissers, separated from the intellectual milieu they used to live in in Berlin, and James who is disconnected from his true identity and from reality, because his father turned him into the image of the Bear Boy.
The reader is very rapidly taken into the story of this group of outsiders that have been brought together by coincidence. The book is remarkable for the subtle treatment of the life of European refugees who are not working-class immigrants but an educated, intellectual family - individuals who are now torn between loyalty to their German origins and an inevitable Americanisation.
The Bear Boy is also a tribute to the great authors of the 19th century. Literature is not absent in the novel: Rose can be seen as a 20th-century Jane Eyre or Fanny Price and her very few belongings include Hard Times and Sense and Sensibility, a novel which she finally persuades Mrs Mitwisser to read - in English. Throughout the novel references abound to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, William Thackeray... The world of children's literature is also evoked: The Bear Boy is a companion to the works of Erich Kästner, Selma Lagerlof, Alan Alexander Milne.
Ozick's fascinating novel could be seen as having a happy ending, but this impression is misleading: a sense of disaster pervades the text, and it is even more enhanced by the reference to the Depression era and the war that is looming ahead, coming from Europe.
Cynthia Ozick, The Bear Boy (orginal American title: Heir to the Glimmering World). Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 2004