Gretel and Zita

North European bear

Gretel and Zita

It is a strange coincidence that a book about a mayor and a bear in a north Italian mountain town is published, just when young people worldwide are questioning the human species’ relationship to and role in climate change and the floods that devastate the lives and livelihood of thousands of people. There is much to enjoy and think about as one becomes involved in the life of Zita, the mayor of Pianalto, a fictional town where tourists gather in the warmer months to hike and explore wildlife and the delights of untrammelled nature. It is one of the few places in Europe where bears survive, precariously, in the wild. Hunters prowl the forests, guns ready. The mother bear, Gretel, charges to protect her cubs and a father and child, observing them, fall over the cliff onto a ledge above a ravine. Accidents happen. Who is to blame and what are the consequences?

The newly-published novel, Zita and Gretel, explores the issues that Greta Thurnberg champions: how far should human ingenuity invade this planet and affect its plant or animal inhabitants beyond the basic requirements for survival – food, shelter and procreation? What differentiates the human-animal from other living creatures – religion and the desire to create works of art that have no practical use?

The story is not told entirely through Zita, but she is the dominant voice. Her teenage daughter, Melissa, disrupts her single mother’s life with her volatile emotions and determination to find out who is her father. This is a finely-drawn setting of a mountain town anxiously dependent upon seasonal nature tourism – there is not a ski slope insight. The craggy wonderland of unspoilt nature beckons the walkers and explorers of a mountain wilderness, beguiling and dangerous. A mother bear attacks a man and child because the small boy moves spontaneously to play with the ‘teddy’ bears miraculously come alive. A dream turns into a tragedy.

The consequences ripple out right down to the national government in Rome. A wild bear has endangered human life. Should bears be enclosed in a nature reserve that humans enter at their peril, or can we muddle on with each case decided on its own merits? The fate of the child, Danilo, who lost his leg through Gretel, the bear’s attack to save her cubs, has human parallels and consequences.

Over many years I have heard similar arguments in the area of Tuscany that I know well. Wild boars nose into the ground to gobble roots leaving holes deep enough to break a child’s leg or twist an adult ankle. Fence them out, but they will nose underneath even buried wire netting and poke their way through – unless they first become ‘porchetta’, roasted and sliced for a weekend treat sold on Saturday market stalls. As yet no accident has happened on our nighttime walks, no wild boar sow has charged. One evening I did come upon a sow with at least ten piglets as it scuttled across the cart track. I have heard one, caught in a trap on a night prowl, wailing like a child until a shot ended its agony in the field where the fireflies dance at night in June. That is what makes Gretel and Zita such a satisfying read for our times – its truth to experience and the human dilemma when confronted with nature outside human control.

Gretel and Zita by Jiannina Camillo is available on Amazon, on kindle £3.36 or paperback £6.71



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