From the valiant ship the Unsinkable, headed for arctic regions, a grandfather writes to his grandchild.
I am writing to let you know that Roo and I are well. I'm sorry I was unable to say goodbye to you properly and I hope that you can understand why I had to go on this expedition. I am going to the North Pole to find the Last Polar Bears."
All his life, the grandfather writes, he has either been too old or too young to do what he wanted to do, so with his dog Roo he has set off to find the polar bears before they are gone. And so begins The Last Polar Bears, written and illustrated by Harry Horse (2003 in the UK, 2007 in the US).
"Mama, finish reading me my book," my five-year old asked, the moment he woke up yesterday. I didn't mind obliging, because this book is an utter gem, a wonderful story, an utterly perfect book to read out loud to a five year old (I like it too). Part this is due to the many, varied, and entertaining black and white illustrations, the sort that cry out for careful study with your co-reader. Part of it is the story, in equal parts wacky adventure and fable.
The letters continue, describing the voyage.
"This afternoon Roo asked the captain if she could have a go steering the ship. "Dogs are great steerers of ships," she told him. He let her have a little go, and for half an hour we went around in circles. Roo said that dogs always steer ships in this way."
At last Grandfather and Roo reach Walrus Bay, where they settle into a tiny cabin to prepare for their expedition to Great Bear Ridge, and are troubled by wolves running across the roof at night. They are Bad wolves, hanging around and drinking too much Old Sock. What with the wolves keeping them awake, and all there is to do, life is busy. Roo and Grandfather shop at the Last Store, where Roo buys a painting of a rabbit, they care for frozen sea gulls and a small penguin knocked unconscious by one of grandfather's errant golf balls, they visit with a snow sculptor, whose art is melting into the ocean, and they plan their great expedition, choosing to take the Gentle Slop route. Roo has no interest in bears, but has been promised fields of snow ice cream.
The thirty-second of October arrives, bringing strange-ness. The folk of Walrus Bay are all leaving. The wolves head north. And Grandfather, Roo, and the young penguin head out to find Great Bear Ridge.
It is a hard journey, and beset with difficulties of the sort common to many polar expeditions. Seven days after setting out, the storm that trapped the travellers in a small igloo has ended. They are out of food.
"Child, do not worry.
I know the polar bears will find us.
I feel more tired than I have ever felt in my life. I shall dream of the polar bears tonight.
Roo says she will dream about ice cream.
Tell your mother that I will be home soon."
But there is one more letter...
And this final letter makes me sniff, but my boy is happy. He is even more happy to read three trailers for other books about Grandfather and Roo. He says it is his favorite book ever, and how funny it was, and how much he loves Roo.
My mind is full of thoughts of beloved Grandfathers growing old, melting ice, and small dogs looking forward to ice cream that isn't there. Journeys from which there is no return- "I am just going outside, and may be some time."* And I am sad, because I know that in 2007 Harry Horse, his wife, and their own Roo, set off together on just such a journey.
"Read it again!" says my boy. Sniff.
But on a more cheerful note, there are indeed three more books about Roo and Grandfather--The Last Gold Diggers, The Last Cowboys, and The Last Castaways. I also feel more cheerful now that I have found that The Last Polar Bears was first published in 2003, long before the tragedy of 2007.
Final note: many reviewers at Amazon were unhappy about the penguins. If you cannot tolerate the thought of penguins in the Arctic, you might not like this book. You might also have trouble believing in Santa.
* note written by Lawrence Oates, just before walking out of his tent into an Antarctic blizzard, sacrificing himself on behalf of Scott's doomed expedition.