The book’s first sentence sets us firmly in time and place: “Rivière-à-Pierre, the Gaspé Peninsula, winter 1933.” But very soon, the reader understands that this story will take place, like a fairy tale, largely in a world that transcends time and place. It is told in the voice of an eleven-year old girl (clearly the namesake of the title, though she remains unnamed in the novel). “You’re not a monster…just a little beast,” her mother tells her, because she has sprouted a beard. Our adolescent narrator is acutely self-aware: “There is something unfair about not being able to choose your face: It’s like heading down a road that you know is going nowhere.” This latter statement may very well encapsulate the experience of reading this short, haunting novel.
No one gets to choose their own face; in other words, we are all on this futile journey “going nowhere.” But let’s be fair: Little Beast’s journey is far from the norm, and not just “because no one else can say ‘I’ in talking about me,” as the girl says early in the book. It is this extreme landscape the book aims to cover. When the beard appears, the reaction of others is predictable. Her father shuns her. Her mother is kind and caring, but keeps her locked up in the house, choosing to homeschool her. One winter’s day in 1944, the villagers of Rivière-à-Pierre (who are nicknamed, creepily, “the Boots,” we’re not sure by whom) demand access to their “beast.” They break down the front doors, but Little Beast escapes their grasp, through a window. She takes “the longest road,” and flees, northward. She feels she has no choice but to run, and as “the order of the indoors implodes…the order of the outdoors takes hold.” Her journey, though distinctly boreal, becomes unpredictable, surreal and, at times, magical. She must survive the wilderness not on food or clothing or even shelter (though she is very resourceful in all these regards), but ultimately on faith and imagination, and on her own writing. Little Beast realizes, “This is not a simulation: I am an Indian. I know the recipe for pemmican.” She continues, “I’m on an expedition. I’m heading toward the permafrost. This is an act of bravery and it could cost my life.” The reader is forced to contemplate many things in her flight: Is she escaping or exploring? Is she a voyageur or an Indigenous person? Predator or prey? How far do you have to go to erase your face?
Little Beast moves literally and figuratively into the unknown and at the same time toward omniscience. There is a transition point in the novel, which physically mimics the trees giving way to tundra, where Little Beast is no longer being searched for by the Boots, and where the world seems to end in oblivion. “These are not lies: the most complete revolution ever just happened. I can say that because I have known both worlds: the old and the new. That’s right, I lived through the transition. That’s right, I have come a long way.” But Little Beast questions what should happen after an apocalypse, and points out the perverse co-dependency of predator and prey: “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?” Many questions like this are set up as rhetorical, but then she answers them. Little Beast realizes that her existence is essential, “It is up to me to be the world’s witness.” There are many ways in which she witnesses the world, but at one point, after the “transition,” she starts writing down the names of what she calls “extinct species” near and far, such as the Labrador duck, the Sicilian dwarf elephant, and the glaucous macaw (surreally, she includes in this long list the nearly extinct northern curlew and the non-extinct desert kangaroo rat). Is there a lesson from the apocalypse? There are many, but here is one: “When you have nothing in this world, you just have to create your own ecosystem.”
There are a few points worth noting about the translation. The first is the decision to change the title. In the French version, the title is far more literal: Barbe (“beard”). The English title adds mystery by speaking to a larger class of objects. A beast can be anything, and perhaps more importantly in this novel, everything. Another curious change: in the original text there are no capital letters, but this very deliberate move has been “corrected.” For me, this gave the narrator slightly more authority in the English translation, and it is perhaps fair she has been granted this, given that something of her voice is bound to have been lost in translation. For the most part, the language in both versions is simple, matching quite well the stark, harsh, bare, abrasive, and rocky boreal landscape over which much of the story takes place. There are a few awkward moments of overwriting in the fairly close translation and there are what appear in fact as clichés in both versions. For example, here’s a line that makes the voice of the narrator sound strangely and unnecessarily foreign: “The sun was bright that day: they are squinting. It’s what is called ‘having the sun in your eyes.’ ” The tense is odd and adding the idiom appears so forced a way to communicate her isolation and her adolescence. It’s perhaps the first time we sense that Little Beast’s relationship to human language itself is strained. There are also a few passages that sound like generic adolescent diary entries:
But why keep bringing up bitter memories? I know where I am, I know where I will go. I am no longer in the middle of nowhere. I am at a particular place. That’s the way it is. You think life has no meaning and then all of a sudden meaning smacks you in the face. I am searching: I have a quest. That’s what happens to me. That’s what happens to all of us.
The village of Rivière-à-Pierre, a real village, established around 1800, is still quite small today (its population, reported in 2016 as 584, is rapidly declining), and remains surrounded by the boreal forests of the Laurentian Mountains. There are places in the world where “bearded lady” still invokes the circus and travelling freak shows. But female beard growth of course is no longer mythical, reprehensible, mysterious, or even, for that matter, irreversible. Scientists discovered long ago that hirsutism (the condition of unwanted or excessive hair growth) occurs due hormonal imbalances. Still, I wonder how an adolescent girl with a beard in rural Quebec would fare today. A notable contemporary case from elsewhere (the U.K.) is that of Harnaam Kaur, who in 2016 was included in the Guinness World Records for being the youngest woman in the world to have a full beard. Kaur refers to her beard as a “she” and even named it “Sundri,” which means beautiful. Before coming to terms with her condition, Kaur went through years of bullying, exile, and suicidal tendencies, not unlike those faced by Little Beast, but Kaur so far seems to have landed on a positive note: she became the first bearded woman on the catwalk at London Fashion Week.
Demers could have chosen from any number of female anomalies to tell her story. The female beard is a clever choice, however, because it draws attention to both the male-female and the human-beast divide. These are the inner-outer barriers that set up the story’s numerous tensions: Little Beast versus her father, Little Beast versus the Boots, Little Beast versus the trappers, Little Beast versus a bear, Little Beast versus the boreal forest of northern Quebec. It is intriguing that Demers insists on using the word “difference” (it’s the same word in the original French version) throughout the book to refer specifically to sexual dimorphism: “Between when Father left and when he came home, I would have grown older. But he didn’t see me; when Father came back from the woods, he didn’t bother looking at me. He came back only for Mother. He came back to touch her difference.” And then, later: “When you are old and ugly and no one is interested in your difference anymore, you are left to die in peace.” But, for Little Beast, differences pervade every aspect of her humanity, and cannot even be fully articulated. The tensions presented in the novel are never resolved but stubbornly follow the cycle of cutting and growing back, like anything organic. The verb “survive”, (which comes from the Anglo-French survivre and the Latin supervivere) meaning “live beyond, live longer than,” is the one that comes to the fore in Little Beast. “This is not a simulation”, says Little Beast. But for the reader, that is exactly what it is; the parameters of reality are stretched, using all the devices of fiction, and some of the devices of poetry, to create a sharper sense of self and of other, of beauty and of beast.