Born with a Beard: Little Beast by Julie Demers

Author Origin: Quebec City, Quebec. Currently lives in Montreal.
Page Count: 125
Genre: Fiction
Difficulty: Hard
Grade Level: 12+
Key Talking Points: Elements of a fairy tale, fear of what we don't understand, the art of language, family, the nature of beauty and other philosophical issues.
Sensitive Subject Matter: sexuality, discrimination.

It's rare that a book makes me feel as unbalanced as Little Beast did. It is described on the book jacket as a "modern fairy tale" and it definitely has the fantastical feel of most mainstream fairy tales, but even more so it is reminiscent of the old Grimm brother stories where stepsisters chop off toes to fit slippers and birds peck out eyes.

Summary: Little Beast (LB) is an eleven year old girl who grew up hiding behind locked doors and peaking from curtains in a home with her mother, roaming "only as far as the line Mother drew" (Demers 18). This confinement is a safety measure because the society in 1944 Quebec isn't ready to understand anyone different from the norm, and Little Beast definitely fits that bill; she was born with a beard. While LB's mother loves her, being locked away takes its toll and, even as a child, LB can tell her mother is struggling with her mental health. Little Beast's father, a hunter/trapper, was only in the picture sporadically to begin with, but after giving LB a shaving lesson one day, he never returns. Little Beast's mother is hounded by the officials and laypeople in her village to let them see the child, using guilt and fear to try and manipulate her. Finally, the village men, who LB calls "the Boots", enter the house by force and are so aghast at what they find, they act to end her life. She does the only thing she can and flees her home and the village. This begins Little Beast's journey to evade "the Boots" and survive in the wilderness. It is winter and she is ill-equipped to survive, but her creative mind and wild spirit make this a grand adventure.

The most striking thing about this text is its distinctive use of language to create the narrative voice. Little Beast is very self aware and philosophical for an eleven year old. She has an understanding of the world around her, of life, death, and of human nature, far more mature than many adults I know. This sometimes requires the reader to suspend belief in order to enjoy the bigger picture ideas being discussed.

An example of the philosophical nature of the text can be found when Little Beast has eluded capture and is questioning her next moves:
     "When you come right down to it, I liked being chased. When the Boots were looking for me, I was someone; with their violence came recognition. Now that they have stopped looking for me, do I exist? How do I know? How do I know myself? I can look at myself in the mirror all I want, but my eyes are the only ones doing the seeing. If no one is here to see me, am I really still here?" (55).

While Little Beast's mind is definitely uncommon, her physical anomaly, her beard, also allows for an interesting discourse on the concept of beauty:
     "I worked on enduring my reflection. I was on the verge of accepting that having to live with myself was an endless bore and that looking at myself in the mirror would bring me no joy. 'Be satisfied with your looks,' Mother would say. But I would repel everyone. I would end up scaring males: grimy old men and ugly runts alike. They would lock me in my bedroom and shake me, each one harder than the last. Only beautiful things are precious: those who have to be satisfied with their looks can be shaken silly" (20).

Another interesting element of this text is how it includes elements of poetry and plays visually with the words on the page. The reader is startled to turn to two seemingly blank pages in the center of the book, then upon closer inspection finds one simple sentence on each page: "And they disappear for a moment" is found at the top of one page, followed by a long blank section that physically reflects that disappearance. The opposite page simply reads "A long moment" (58-59). The author is forcing the reader to take the moment that LB is taking by creating that space in the pages themselves.

The poetry pops up at random through the text, and is as equally refreshing. Here is a little example from when LB is describing geese:
     "Canada Geese. Stunt flying. Formations. / Spring is taking over the sky. / They travel in spirant squadrons. / Majestic. / Enduring. / Drawn by something that can't be seen. / One in front, the others behind. / The sound from their throats resonates though the mountain" (57).

Despite how enjoyable I found the poetic and philosophical style of this text, there were also moments I found it very challenging. LB's narration jumps around sometimes when she strings together seemingly incongruous ideas. At first this really unsettled me, but I eventually learned to just accept the random insertions of ideas and be okay with the fact that they were not attached to or followed up on in any surrounding narration. This text is a translation, so I'm not sure if the original French would hold the same disconcerting rhythm, or even the same alluring unexpectedness. Although, the translator (Rhonda Mullins) has won the Governor General's Literary Award for translation, so I would hope the unique spirit of this text is as the author intended.

Teacher Note: This text would definitely be a struggle for younger or weaker readers and, therefore, is best suited for senior level classes. As described above, the non-linear flow of the narration does become hard to follow at times; however, this is balanced by the overall simplicity of the plot. The beauty and uniqueness of the language could be deconstructed through the lens of the craft of writing itself. Discussions about the choices the author made in characterization and narration, while ultimately not having answers, would help young writers become more aware of their own authorial choices. The elements of traditional fairy tales would also allow for an interesting course focus in comparing modern and classic stories. Therefore, I would recommend the use of this novel in either a grade twelve writer's craft or literature studies course. All of the big literary theories would also apply to the text, however, I would caution against using the text in a mainstream course, like a grade twelve university preparation course, because the artistic nature of the text threatens to disengage readers who aren't as passionate about the study of literature.

 Final Thought: Julie Demers, through the translation of Rhonda Mullins, has such a strange and endearing way of writing that reading Little Beast is so very enjoyable, despite the occasional struggle to keep up. Where reading most texts is almost automatic, like eating a sandwich, reading Little Beast  makes you stop and savor and wonder and question, like some sort of decadent five-star meal. Just make sure your brain is fresh when you sit down to read and you'll no doubt find the bearded Little Beast both strange and endearing as well.  

📚 Ms. CAN Lit