A polar bear swimming in the Thames River in London.
How did that happen, Susan Fletcher remembers wondering when she first read a history of the royal menagerie at the Tower of London. The exotic animals in the collection were often gifts from the rulers of other countries to the king of England. But how, exactly, did an Arctic animal wind up there?
Fletcher knew she wanted to write about that bear, but she also knew she would have to do a lot of research. The bear lived more than 750 years ago, during the medieval period in Europe.
Fletcher loves digging around in the past, though. Most of her 12 books have been set in “times long ago and far away,” she said. And most include animal characters, both real (a falcon and cow) and imaginary (dragons).
“Journey of the Pale Bear” took five years to research and write. Because there were so few facts about the bear, its keeper and their travels, Fletcher imagined the keeper as a 12-year-old boy named Arthur. In the action-packed novel, Arthur and a female polar bear travel from Norway to England in 1252. They brave homesickness, stormy seas and pirates. In one funny scene, Arthur has to clean the poop from the bear’s cage as waves roil the ship.
Writing the book was also a journey of sorts for Fletcher, who started it in Portland, Oregon, but finished it about 2,000 miles away, when she married the historian in Texas who was helping with her research.
Like her character Arthur, Fletcher learned much about polar bears by spending time with them. Thanks to a special invitation from the curator at the Oregon Zoo, Fletcher had a chance to observe two polar bears in a quiet space off limits to the public.
“They were enormous!” said Fletcher by phone from her home in Bryan, Texas. She compared the 1,500-pound male bear to her dog, Neville, and realized, with a laugh, that “he was the size of 30 Nevilles.”
Neville also helped Fletcher better understand how humans and animals might communicate without words. Being with Neville gave Fletcher insight into how Arthur and the bear might relate to each other. Arthur hums to calm the bear, and he learns that her chuffs, grunts and withdrawn silence convey her annoyance, excitement and sadness.
Fletcher did research in old documents and histories to discover what Arthur might have eaten and worn, but she relied on her own childhood for details of his travels by land.
Growing up in California and Ohio, Fletcher loved to explore the outdoors with her three younger siblings. They would roam for hours through nearby fields and hills and poke around in the pond and creek — just like Arthur and the bear at one point in the book.
The most exciting part of the research, though, was a visit to the Tower of London. The menagerie no longer exists, but Fletcher could view the richly decorated throne room, the site for a suspenseful scene in the book. And she could see the Thames River, where the real bear swam and caught fish.
At the tower, too, are sculptures of some of the animals — lions, baboons, an elephant — that were part of the menagerie during the 600 years it existed. Fletcher’s favorite, of course, depicts what the tower records of the 13th century call the “pale bear,” which was a gift from the king of Norway to King Henry III of England.
Fletcher has already started writing her next novel. And it’s set in a place that’s become just as fascinating to her as medieval London: the landscape of her Texas home. Instead of a polar bear, look for cactuses, turtles and armadillos in the new tale.