CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 14. . . .December 4, 2015
And so begins a mother's story of how a young veterinarian, Harry Colebourn, purchases a bear cub for $20.00 in 1914, a cub that would become "The World's Most Famous Bear!"
There seems to be a real interest in this factual tale as this is the second biographical picture book published in 2015 about Winnie's fascinating story. The previous one was titled Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the- Pooh, and Finding Winnie chronicles many of the same facts. After the rescue of the cub, Harry and his regiment bond with the bear cub, train him, and she becomes a treasured pet and a beloved mascot of the 2nd. Canadian Infantry Brigade, even accompanying them all the way to England. Harry names her Winnipeg so his soldiers "will never be far from home", but the nickname of Winnie seems to stick! It is only when Captain Colebourn is called to the front that he realizes he can no longer keep Winnie, and he leaves her in good care at the London Zoo. When Coleman returns to Canada in 1920, he decides that Winnie should stay in England where a famous author, Alexander Milne, and his son connect with this special bear.
The significant difference between the two biographies is that the narrator and author of this story is the great-great granddaughter of Harry Colebourn, a fact which brings a certain amount of authenticity and family pride to the tale. The other major difference is that this tale is embedded within a bedtime story. The reader hears how sad Cole is that Harry and Winnie’s story seems to be over, but then his mother says:
This transitions into the meeting of Winnie and Christopher Robin, the young son of Milne, at the London Zoo. After several visits, the two develop a close bond. Christopher’s imagining wonderful adventures with Winnie becomes the genesis for the beloved classic series of books, commencing with Winnie-the-Pooh. This delightful tale of an extraordinary bear that ends up inspiring a well-loved legendary children’s series will find many adoring fans. How wonderful for children to realize these stories have a true, fact-based connection. This connection is enhanced with several actual archival photos, encased in an album, at the end of the book. Winnie is pictured with the regiment, with Harry, and with Christopher Robin. Also included are diaries, and documents, all well-labelled. Mattick has commented in interviews that telling this story was so important to her because "People don't realize that there was a real bear."
The narrative structure of Finding Winnie is skillfully done as a loving bedtime story to young Cole, Mattick’s real life son, who is named after Harry Colebourn, and to whom she dedicates this book.
Young Cole’s interruptions, curiosity and comments during the story add to the fun and are so typical of a toddler captivated by a story. The warm and satisfying text is enhanced by softly coloured illustrations done in Chinese ink and watercolors on hot-pressed paper. Blackall’s colours are subdued, rendered with humour, yet expressive and especially effective in capturing a time frame from long ago. Several full-page spreads include details of the time and place which give the feeling of the scope of the story. Winnipeggers will share a personal connection to this story.
And the tale will especially resonate with readers from this city when it is pointed out that a picture of Harry with Winnie is replicated as a statue that resides in Harry’s home town. But this book succeeds on its own merits as a richly rewarding and compelling story, well told.
Lindsay Mattick was involved in not only writing this charming story, which she shared as a radio documentary, but she also travelled to the United Kingdom "to commemorate Harry's and Winnie's experiences in World War One”. The proud author is determined to keep the fascinating details of this real, cherished family story alive.
Reesa Cohen is a retired Instructor of Children’s Literature and Information Literacy at the Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.
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