The Bear / Claire Cameron
Toronto: Doubleday, c2014.
Imagine an idyllic summer vacation in Algonquin Park; imagine an outdoorsy family on a canoe trip, two active parents with their two very young children. Now imagine that the worst happens: while the children sleep, their parents are attacked by a rogue bear.
The story is told from the perspective of five year old Anna, confused by what she's hearing. She can't figure out why her mother is yelling, who never yells. So she tries to be very quiet, thinking that she's going to get in trouble for not being asleep. We, the reader, know why, and it is chilling to read this.
Before the bear attacks him as well, their father succeeds in dragging the two children out of their tent and stuffing them for safety into their secure food hamper, where they uncomfortably wait out the bear until morning. But when they finally emerge, it’s to a world completely changed.
Their dying mother hangs on long enough to insist that five year old Anna take care of her three year old brother Alex (usually called Stick), by getting them both into the canoe and away from the campsite. Anna does her best, making it across the lake despite shoving off without a paddle. But as the canoe grounds itself on the other shore, they tumble out; over the next few days, the two children struggle to survive until somebody, anybody, comes searching for the missing campers. They face hunger, thirst, exhaustion, poison ivy, fear, confusion and more, all while Anna is trying to stay in control.
The story is narrated by Anna, filtered through her five-year-old understanding. It makes the horror of the situation more evident, as she describes things that we as readers understand much more clearly than she does. (My own realization of what was actually going on in some parts made me quickly skip down to the end of the page or turn it rapidly.)
Cameron succeeds with this approach; Anna’s voice is believable and she behaves like a child would. That said, she is also the only character who acts upon the story for most of the narrative, with no other speaking characters in sight. Because of this, much of the book is made up of Anna’s memories and flashbacks to her regular life in Toronto. These parts are told more with an authorial voice than Anna's specifically, as she'd be a very advanced five year old indeed to express herself so elegantly.
When Anna and Alex are rescued and returned to their grandfather’s care, Anna is suddenly allowed simply to be a child again, and it is in these last pages of the book that the emotion really kicks in. The final chapter really got me, so make sure if you're reading it in public you're prepared for that -- fair warning!
The Bear is a powerfully written, emotionally hard-hitting novel that becomes compulsive reading. This really isn't my usual type of book, as I'm not big on horrible events, outdoorsy themes, or child narrators. But I tried this on a whim, and didn't put it down until I'd finished. If you enjoy adrenaline-ridden contemporary novels, try this one. It's so very Canadian, and well worth checking out.
(first published in my local paper & library blog in slightly briefer form, March 20)