Dancing Bears; True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny by Witold Szabłowsk Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

Dancing Bears; True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny by Witold Szabłowski. Penguin Books, 2014. 233 pages; $16.00 (paperback); reading level: adult.

This intriguing book (translated from Polish) is divided neatly into two parts. The first centers on the 30-acre Dancing Bears Park in Belitsa, Bulgaria, where domesticated bears, trained to perform from birth, are forcibly removed from the homes of their Roma owners and transferred to the Park, where they are fed, cared for, and allowed to move around freely but never regain the instincts (such as hibernation and finding food) that will enable them to survive in the wild. Part II (whose chapter titles mirror those of Part I) takes us to various former or current dictatorships ranging from those experiencing a whiff of freedom (such as Cuba), to former Soviet satellites, to disillusioned democracies. The author scrupulously avoids comment. Everything we learn comes through the mouths of grieving former bear-owners, bear-park employees, or citizens of countries transitioning (some happily, some not) from statist to free-market economies. As we read their simple, sad, silly, humorous, maddening tales, we come away with an enlarged understanding. What remains elusive are happy endings. Through his ingenious use of straightforward stories the author illuminates some highly complex political issues.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

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