UPDATE, Feb. 28, 2012: I have been roundly (and deservedly) chastised in e-mails and elsewhere by Slate readers for my use of “good riddance” in connection with this kind woman’s death. I admit, I was not really thinking of her as a person with actual feelings and a family, just an abstraction who happened to write these books. Apologies. Next time I will be more humane. --Hanna
The world today brings news that Jan Berenstain, co-author with her husband Stan of the 45 years and running Berenstain Bears series for children, has passed on to a better world. As any right-thinking mother will agree, good riddance. Among my set of mothers the series is known mostly as the one that makes us dread the bedtime routine the most. There, in the big treehouse down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country is Mama Bear, known only ever as Mama Bear, wearing the same blue polka-dotted muumuu and housecap in every single book, inside the house and on the very rare occasions when she leaves it. (What’s her problem? Is there no Target in Bear Country? Is she too busy to change? Is she clinically depressed?) Mama Bear’s only pleasures in life seem to come from being the Tracy Flick of domesticity, making up charts for good behavior and politeness, encouraging her children to use pretentious British affectations such as “terribly sorry” and “lovely, my dear.” Mama is particularly painful when she edges close to the profound questions in life, as in the book that is actually called The Birds and the Bees and the Berenstain Bears and begins with perhaps the most insipid of the opening poems: “When a mama bear’s lap slowly disappears she has some special news to tell her little dears!” Lap slowly disappears. That has to win some kind of prize for evasiveness. I recall that in that one Sister Bear actually dares to ask how the baby got into the belly but I don’t recall exactly how Mama elides the question. What I do recall is throwing the book away in a fury during my second pregnancy, lest my subsequent children find it and become as attached as the first one did and I find myself once again, night after night, speaking about butterflies as a stand-in for human sex.
I have loved many a midcentury book starring the retrograde housewife. Most great Dr. Seuss books were written around the same time. The Frances books are some of my favorites, and Mother in that book never changes out of her apron. And I can read Richard Scarry all day. But usually you need humor to soften the blow. Stan and Jan, sadly, were allergic to humor. This is the only thing I hold against Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. He was the one who apparently approved the Berenstain Bears books and yet he never pushed them to write one funny line. Papa Bear for example, is a bumbling oaf. The usual plotline in the books involves Papa trying to fix some problem but screwing it up, so that Mama has to swoop in and save the day. In defter hands, Papa could have been a prototype Homer Simpson. But in these book he just bangs on the table and shouts things like “pinheaded fiddlebrain!”
I have since learned that Charles Krauthammer also hated the books. This is surprising to me, since the books seem flown in from an era when childhood conflicts were addressed in moral terms and not as problems of self-esteem or bullying. In fact Krauthammer hates them for the exact opposite reasons I do. To my great alarm, he finds them to be “post-feminist” because Papa is such a wimp, the “Alan Alda of grizzlies.” Upon reading Krauthammer’s complaints I considered re-evaluating the books. Maybe Jan Berenstain was sending us a secret message. Maybe in fact this was an early dispatch on the “The End of Men”, where the women fix all the problems and the men bumble around. But then I fished out my old copy and there was Mama Bear, still in her housecoat even while tucked into bed.