I don't think I ever knew Gentle Ben was a book. Of course I'm old enough that I spent a fair amount of my childhood watching the TV series whenever it was broadcast in Australia. Although memory had played some tricks and I thought the TV series was set in Alaska, like the book, but for some reason the TV series was set in Florida.
Walt Morey's Gentle Ben is set in a fictional salmon fishing village, Orca City, on the Alaskan coast in the time before Alaskan statehood (1959). Mark Andersen lives with his parents on the edge of the village. Mark's father is a salmon fisherman and we learn a lot about salmon and the men who make their livelihood from them. The work was particularly seasonal, the salmon fishermen made their years wages in the six weeks of the salmon run. Naturally any event like that will attract its fair share of crooks too- this was a time of salmon pirates, Mark's mean neighbour Fog Benson among them- men who would let others catch the fish and then steal their fish.
Mark disliked Fog Benson. He always looked dirty. He spent most of his time in bars, where he talked loud, bragged, and was quarrelsome.
Ben was fastened with a chain about his neck; the other end was tied to a post in the centre of the building. Because the chain was so short that he could not reach the door or the sunlight, most of his five years had been spent in the building's inner gloom.
Naturally, Mark keeps his time with Ben secret from his parents who would worry about such things as children befriending bears. Although it turns out his mother already knows.
"Did you think you could come home late every day with bear hair on your clothes, without my guessing?"
Soon though Fog plans to get rid of Ben altogether and Mark needs to work out how to save him.
Before the advent of television Walt Morey was a pulp fiction writer, and it does show at times. He was also an outdoors man, and that shows too. While the plot can take some unusual and rather fanciful turns, Gentle Ben is an exciting adventure story of a friendship between a boy and a bear. Walt Morey's writing is at its best when he is writing of the astonishing natural beauty of Alaska, and the rhythms of nature.
Every living thing whose roots were anchored in the rich northern earth was growing with wild abandon. And somewhere at sea countless millions of salmon were bearing down on the Alaskan coast; returning with mystifying accuracy to the very streams were they had been spawned three years before.
Every living thing wants a piece of the salmon action it seems.
The brown bears, lean-flanked and rough-coated from their long winter's sleep, would amble down off the high snow fields and congregate along the spawning streams. Their would be colossal battles for choice fishing sites; but once those were decided, the animals would all settle down to eat their fill every day as the returning salmon fought their way upstream to spawn..... Only Ben would have none of this harvest.