Book Review: The Grizzly King by James Oliver Curwood


Title: The Grizzly King: A Romance of the Wild

Author: James Oliver Curwood

Release date: 1915/1916

Many of you know this, but for those who don’t, I grew up in a super small town on the Arrow Lakes, in the West Kootenay region in British Columbia, Canada. Burton was founded in the late 1890’s after gold was discovered near Caribou Creek. Reuben Burton was the first postmaster, hence the name of the settlement. Around that same time, the Marshall family arrived. The Marshall family have had stakes in Burton since at least 1900, and my grandpa was born in 1928.

Fast forward exactly 40 years later and the Revelstoke Dam was created, which caused the original townsite of Burton to flood. Many of the houses were moved to the new townsite, my grandpa and grandma’s house being the first. My childhood home was just four houses up from them. Side note – when the water levels go down, you can still go walk around the old townsite. Many foundations still remain as well as the dirt packed-roadways. We used to go down every year and collect old artifacts that had been left behind; bottles, utensils, old toy cars etc.

So, what does this even have to do with this book? I grew up with a grandpa who I’ve described as my last cowboy. Poppa was connected to the wilderness. He had a trapline that I used to go out with him on. He hunted, grew his own food and was a logger for many years. He lived in a time very, very different from ours today. Party lines, one TV channel, two radio channels etc. And, to survive, hunting filled the freezers for the long, cold, harsh winters.

I tend to try not to discuss my own books in my reviews, but if you’ve read my novel ‘Mastodon’ you’ll have read the afterword, in which I discuss Grizzly Basin. When my Poppa was a young man, one of the most pristine areas of land to go hunting in was at Grizzly Basin. Back then, it was said, that it had the largest population density of Grizzly Bears outside of the Rocky Mountains proper. I used to listen to him describe this area of land and I’d soak it all in. They’d ride the horses into this area and come to a sheer shelf-face cliff. A few kilometers wide and a thousand feet down, from on top they’d look out over the land, seeing the two small lakes. And, of course, they’d see Grizzlies roaming the area as well as numerous Elk, Moose, and Deer.

I’ve never been to this place, but how I’ve longed to go. I’ve hiked in a few times, the closest time my dad and I having to turn back due to heavy fog.

Because of my own love of the mountains, one of my favorite movies as a child was ‘The Bear.’ Released in 1988, it was the film adaptation of ‘The Grizzly King.’ I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it, but it captivated me. Through my profession, I even had the chance opportunity to meet one of the animal handlers who worked on the movie and had him sign my DVD. He told me then, that I was the first person to ever ask him to sign a copy. How cool?! I’ll cherish that DVD forever. Sadly, I moved before I got a chance to take him up on his offer. At the time, he had the only trained Polar Bear in the world for movies and invited me to come meet the animal when the following spring rolled around. That would’ve been amazing.

Which finally brings us back to the book. I read this book probably thirty years ago. I remember my grandpa had it with all his western paperbacks and I thought it was good, but not as good as the movie.

But recently, something was calling to me, pushing me to read it, so I dove back in, all these years later, and what a sublime and moving experience this was.

James Oliver Curwood was born in 1878 and died in 1927. Interestingly, in Michigan, where he was from, he had a castle made that still stands to this day. In his early years, Curwood was a voracious hunter, but at some point, he had an experience with a Grizzly, that completely transformed him. He became a steadfast conservationist until his death, and that experience was one that he wrote down and became this novella, ‘The Grizzly King: A Romance of the Wild.’

What I liked: The book follows two different narratives. The first is of Thor, the biggest and mightiest Grizzly that ever roamed the Rocky Mountains. He goes about his days lumbering through his territory and finding food. Along the way, an orphaned Black Bear cub comes into his life. Muskwa, tags along, and instead of Thor turning away the cub away, he grows to tolerate it and even like it.

The second narrative is of Jim Langdon and his hunting companions. They’re making there way through this section of the Rocky Mountains, an area no man has travelled before, when they spot the behemoth that is Thor and begin to hunt him.

As I mentioned, Langdon is a fictional version of Curwood and along the way he comes face to face with Thor, who spares his life. This is the big massive moment of the story, but for me, it was almost an afterthought. I found the true beauty was in the way Curwood described the mountains, showcased the relationship between Thor and Muskwa and how he managed to capture that ‘puppy-ness’ that cubs display. I also found it completely fascinating reading the descriptions of the bears that appear and how Thor interacts with them. Having spent some time around bears in my life, it was so spot on and accurate that it filled with joy and also dread. If you’ve ever seen a Grizzly in the wild start to chuff and swing its head back and forth you’ll know what I mean. That moment before a great bear rushes in the most perfect and frightening thing you’ll ever see.

The environmental and conservationist story angle here still feels topical and comes off well. I can’t imagine some of Curwood’s friends back then would’ve been too happy with his change and shift in thinking, but as he says in the book, for far too long man has killed and killed and killed and given no thought about the day that comes when there’s nothing left to kill.

What I didn’t like: I can’t say if it was because this is a product of it’s time or if it was just the way Curwood wrote, but there are some very repetitive description moments, sometimes within the same paragraph. I chalked it up to this being released in 1915/1916 and with how much I loved this book, it ultimately didn’t bother me too much.

Why you should buy this: If you’re looking for a modern day equivalent (and some of you will say of course Steve says this! But I assure you it is true), Andrew Pyper’s ‘The Wildfire Season’ would be the closest novel I’ve ever read to capture not only the wilderness as being a character of great importance, but also the way the animal controls the wilderness.

Curwood really did craft a sublime and perfect story. One that shows the Grizzly reacting to his first encounter with man, as well as how it deduces things when it encounters him again. This was a moving piece of fiction, based on a real experience and it has reminded me so much of all the things I loved about my Poppa and how lucky I was to have him in my life.

‘The Grizzly King’ has taken a place in my all-time favorite books list and I’ll be sourcing out a hardcover here shortly to add to my shelves.


If you want to read it, the ebook is available for free here;

Otherwise you can find it here on Amazon;

One thought on “Book Review: The Grizzly King by James Oliver Curwood

  1. Can you imagine trying to write in the early 1900s with no computer’s “search” feature to use? I’m not at all surprised that there are some repetitive elements. Sounds like a great read!


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