Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin

Rice is an ex-con escaping his past while hiding out as a caretaker on a private wildlife preserve in the Virginia mountains. He is tasked with remodeling the lodge, mending perimeter fences, and giving updates to his hippy Californian boss. But one day he is alerted to a bear carcass up in the woods. Rice finds clear evidence of poaching; the bear’s gallbladder has been removed and all four paws have been cut off.

Afraid of his name getting into official channels, Rice decides to investigate and find the poachers himself. The problem is that the locals are not trusting of the elitist trust he represents and because of his past issues, he has sort of painted himself into a corner up in the woods. Allies are few and far between, and each try for help is a risk.

Bearskin succeeds in its description of the setting and a character that steadily becomes more tied to wild as the story evolves. McLaughlin’s challenge to the reader is to follow Rice on his decent into a madness and obsession, at once a healthy distraction from his past and then a careless drive to find his truth. He is sometimes helped by the past caretaker who was hurt by the destructive factions who populate the community, but for the most part, he is on his own.

My criticism of the book lies in a part of the characterization of Rice. His has skills, y’know like gun skills and survival skills… but the origin of these are not really examined too deeply. Also, the ending leveled-out quickly and I found it less than satisfying.

A good survival-wilderness thriller that introduces a character in Rice who readers will want to follow.

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