A powerfully suspenseful story narrated by a young girl who must fend for herself and her little brother after a brutal bear attack.
While camping with her family on a remote island, five-year-old Anna awakes in the night to the sound of her mother screaming. A rogue black bear, 300 pounds of fury, is attacking the family’s campsite, pouncing on her parents as prey.
At her dying mother’s faint urging, Anna manages to get her brother into the family’s canoe and paddle away. But when the canoe dumps the two children on the edge of the woods, and the sister and brother must battle hunger, the elements, and a dangerous wilderness, we see Anna’s heartbreaking love for her family–and her struggle to be brave when nothing in her world seems safe anymore.
Told in the honest, raw voice of five-year-old Anna, this is a riveting story of love, courage, and survival.
A good portion of my life has been spent in employment where one of my main goals has been the protection of the young. As a result, much as I love the work of Emma Donoghue, I couldn’t bring myself to read Room, her bestselling novel about a young boy raised in a room with his captive mother because of the issues surrounding the young boy. There was definitely a similar feeling of trepidation when I received a copy of “The Bear” – could I bring myself to read a story where a child was put in peril by circumstances beyond her control? Could I read a story based on a real-life incident whereby a bear attacked a young couple while camping without apparent provocation, killing both?
While The Bear certainly isn’t an easy read, it is definitely one of the more compelling stories I’ve encountered recently. A powerful and riveting story that is the Canadian wilderness version of Room in many respects, The Bear is told in the voice of young Anna, a five year old girl who is bewildered by the events around her, but determined to ‘be a good girl’ and to take care of her younger brother. Initially, the cadence of Anna’s narrative caused me some difficulty, but soon I could hear her voice in my head. She became real to me with some authentic behaviours, including an all-too-real exasperation with her younger brother that could have come from my friends’ own children.
The survival instinct of five-year-old Anna and her younger brother makes for a truly gripping read. I found it particularly unsettling to read about Anna and “Stick”’s time in the Coleman cooler. Having been thrown into the cooler by her father, the cooler quite literally saves Anna and Stick from becoming victims themselves. My stomach was in knots as Anna called ‘Snoopy’ over to the cooler, not realizing that it was the bear that had already mauled her parents. Once they emerge, Anna’s dying mother pleads for her to take her 2 year old brother (Stick) and to retreat to the mainland to wait.
There are numerous instances where Anna must take the lead and help her brother as they wander in hopes of rescue. She realizes that she must act as the babysitter to take care of her brother: attempting to clean him up after he makes a mess, finding him food and water to keep him going and entertaining him when he requires comfort. That’s not to say that she is the perfect child; like any five year old, she hates the mess that Stick can make, and quickly becomes bored and irritated by his need to copy her every action. Within the tension of the story there is comic relief, and as adults who understand all too well the seriousness underlying Anna’s situation, we need that comedy once and in a while. Anna retells familiar stories and plays make-believe to make the time pass, remembering friends back in the city and pretending she is a warrior. At the end of the day, however, she is a vulnerable little girl who is frightened and alone, and my heart went out to her.
“I don’t like it being alone. I have so much worry or Stick … but my body is feeling sleepy. I don’t know if I can fight a black dog and maybe I am not a brave queen that can do a battle or even just a brave princess. I cry and cry and I think there are tears in my eyes and down my face.”
[…]“I need to rescue Stick from the hunter and I miss Stick so much and I wish he never went away. I want to see him so we can go and get Momma and Daddy. I love Stick and I need to save him. I feel sick because I didn’t watch and it is my fault. I will never, ever, not watch Stick again…”
What solidified my feelings for this book was the final quarter of the book. Minor spoiler warning here … I’ll put it down a bit so you can stop reading here if you don’t want to be spoiled.
Anna and her brother are rescued and are eventually reunited with their Grandfather who must come to terms with his own loss. Once rescued, Anna holds tremendous guilt and anger inside of her – she refers to it as the black dog – and cannot bring herself to speak of her experience. She goes through all the motions of returning to normal life (eating cookies, seeing friends, attending counselling) but she is stricken by what has happen and cannot let it go. There is a scene with her grandfather as Anna is in the bath at the end of the book that broke my heart, but that also told me that Anna was going to be okay. I wanted that to be the case, and I needed to know that Anna would be okay. I needed to know that she was not going to brush off what had happened, but also that she would not be irrevocably scarred by the experience and that she would be able have the life her parents would have wanted her to have. She doesn’t forget the experience, and the end of the story is very clear about that. However, like all significant experiences, it forces a person to become something different than they might have become, and I give credit to Cameron for demonstrating just how profoundly five year old Anna’s life had been altered because of her experience.
The Bear isn’t going to be an easy read for some people, and the voice of the five year old character may make it difficult for others to get into, but I can’t encourage you enough to pick up this highly riveting fictionalized account. You’ll never look at camping – or the resilience of five year olds – in the same way.
The Bear was provided by Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase on February 11 from Indigo, Kobo and your favourite indie bookseller! ISBN: 9780316230124, 204 pages.