Finding Winnie: The Improbable and Touching Real-Life Story of the Baby Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh
How a real-life act of kindness with a touch of serendipity sparked one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time.
By Maria Popova
On August 24, 1914, a kindly Canadian veterinarian named Harry Colebourn bought a baby bear from a trapper at a train station, where he had taken respite on his way to heal horses injured in World War I. He named her Winnie, after his hometown of Winnipeg, and took her to the front, where she became his most beloved friend. When his unit was eventually summoned to go to battle, he did the hardest thing he ever had to do — he parted with Winnie to save her life, taking her to the London Zoo. There, a little boy named Christopher Robin befriended Winnie and named his teddy bear after her.
So began the unlikely true story that inspired one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, Winnie-the-Pooh, which A.A. Milne wrote for his young son, Christopher Robin — a story Captain Colebourn’s great-granddaughter, Lindsay Mattick, tells in the impossibly wonderful Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear (public library). And since I clearly live in a bear-cave where the world often passes me by, may the record reflect that this is most emphatically a superb, if belated, addition to the best children’s books of 2015.
Tenderly illustrated by the inimitable Sophie Blackall, this story-within-a-story begins with Mattick herself recounting the adventures of Harry and his bear to her own son, Cole, named after Captain Colebourn. We are then plunged into the century-old tale.
We meet the gentle and handsome young Harry and follow him as he leaves for war.
After the first overnight leg of the journey, Harry decides to stretch his legs at a station called White River, where he encounters an old man on a bench with a leashed baby bear.
Surmising that the man must be a trapper, which hardly casts him as a proper guardian for the sweet young creature, Harry tussles with the decision but eventually offers the trapper $20 — a fortune, and nearly everything he has — for the bear, then takes her back on the train with him.
“Captain Colebourn!” said the Colonel on the train, as the little Bear sniffed at his knees. “We are on a journey of thousands of miles, heading into the thick of battle, and you propose to bring this Most Dangerous Creature?”
Bear stood straight up on her hind legs as if to salute the Colonel. The Colonel stopped speaking at once — and then, in quite a different voice, he said, “Oh, hallo.”
Harry names the bear Winnie, to remind the men of their hometown, and she becomes the baby of the group, lovingly nursed by the soldiers.
Eventually, they arrive at an enormous camp set up in the fields of Valcartier, where Harry is to work at the horse hospital.
Winnie becomes the camp mascot and continually impresses the soldiers with her remarkable skills as a navigator, capable of finding anything hidden anywhere. But the time comes for them to travel across the ocean and join the actual war in Europe. Harry is conflicted, but can’t bear the thought of abandoning Winnie, so he takes her along.
Mattick — whose writing neither dumbs down the historical facts nor suffers from the common strain of forced facetiousness but instead emanates a kind of effortless delight — writes:
Nobody had ever tried to float so many people and animals across the Atlantic Ocean before. Thirty ships sailed together, carrying about 36,000 men, and about 7,500 horses … and about one bear named Winnie.
In England, although Winnie is happy amid the ceaseless rain, it becomes clear that the war is real and inevitable. After the soldiers take a photo with their beloved mascot to send home, Harry makes the difficult decision to do what is best for Winnie, even if it breaks his heart. (One is reminded of Charlie Brown in the 1965 gem Love Is Walking Hand in Hand, lamenting: “Love is being happy knowing that she’s happy… but that isn’t so easy.”)
Harry puts in Winnie in a car reminiscent of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s famous Lady Godiva, and together they drive to London, where Harry wistfully entrusts his beloved friend with the London Zoo — the safest place for her — before returning to his wartime duty.
Here, the philosophical dimension of the book pokes through — when Cole interrupts his mother to protest that he doesn’t want the story to be over, Mattick responds:
“Sometimes,” I said, “you have to let one story end so the next one can begin.”
“How do you know when that will happen?”
“You don’t,” I said. “Which is why you should always carry on.”
And carry on the new story does — we meet young Christopher Robin Milne and his stuffed bear, which he has trouble naming. No name seems to fit.
One day, the boy’s father takes him to the London Zoo and, lo and behold, there is Winnie. Christopher Robin falls instantly in love and the two become true friends — so loving is their bond that the boy is allowed to go inside Winnie’s enclosure and play with her. We see his father — a young A.A. Milne — observe affectionately in the background, smoking his famous pipe.
The rest is the sweetest kind of history — Christopher Robin, of course, names his nameless teddy bear Winnie and it becomes the protagonist of his father’s classic book series, which remains one of those tremendously rewarding and philosophically rich stories attesting to J.R.R. Tolkien’s assertion that there is no such thing as writing “for children.” One suddenly wonders whether it is because so much real, complex emotion went into Harry’s relationship with Winnie that the simple words of Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood animal inhabitants are rife with such immense insight into the complexities of the human heart.
The end of the book, like the marvelous Blackall-illustrated The Mighty Lalouche, includes an album of wonderful vintage photographs of Captain Colebourn, Winnie, Christopher Robin, and even Harry’s diary, where under Monday, August 24, 1914, “bought bear $20” appears in his handwriting.
Complement the irrepressibly heartwarming Finding Winnie with this rare 1929 recording of Milne reading from Winnie-the-Pooh, then revisit Sophie Blackall’s lovely illustrations for Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book and meet the real-life little girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Published March 2, 2016