I turn over and hug Gwen and snuggle into Stick and hope the sounds will go away. Momma screams like a monster is tackling her. That’s why I know it’s a dream so I should keep my eyes shut tight. It is dark behind my eyes. Momma never yells. Mostly not ever. Except sometimes. – from The Bear, page 10 -
Five year old Anna and her two year old brother Alex (aka Stick or Sticky) are camping on Bates Island in Algonquin Park (just northeast of Toronto, Canada) with their parents. It seems idyllic. And then tragedy strikes. A three hundred pound black bear attacks Anna’s parents in the middle of the night. Anna and “Stick” are spared, but as morning comes, Anna sees the chaos left behind. Her mother whispers through dying lips “Get your brother in the canoe and go to the middle of the lake.” And Anna does just that.
What unfolds is a highly suspenseful, quite terrifying story told in the innocent voice of Anna. As Anna tries her best to care for her young brother, she is haunted by “the black dog” who has become a monster in her eyes. The choice of Anna as narrator is brilliant because Anna is a child, and not able to fully grasp the danger or how to deal with it. Her thoughts return to happier times, then catapult back into the traumatic present. Meanwhile, the adult reader is all too aware of the precarious future facing these two very young children.
The pages almost turn themselves as the days in the wilderness unspool. I was mesmerized, thrilled, terrified and ultimately moved by Anna’s story. I do not want to tell you the ending – but let me just say that it is perfect.
The Bear reminded me of another compelling novel narrated by a child. When I read Emma Donaghue’s novel Room (read my review) I could barely breathe. Cameron’s book took me to that same space – one of almost impossible tension. I think writing a novel from the point of view of a young child must be very difficult, and so when I see an author pull it off, as Cameron does, I am amazed at the brilliance of the feat.
Claire Cameron was inspired to write this story based on a real bear attack on two campers on Bates Island in 1991. There was never any good explanation for that attack, and so the people who who lived in the area were haunted by their imaginations, about the what-ifs and how-comes of such a thing. Cameron writes in her author’s note:
The Bear is based on my memories of and research into this bear attack. I added the kids.
The Bear is a taut, stark novel about family, and about growing up; about tragedy and courage, and what it means to be brave when you are still too young to understand the definition of such a thing.
This book is fantastic and highly recommended for those readers who love to indulge in literary fiction with a thrilling edge. It will appeal to those readers who loved Room by Emma Donaghue.