What’s This Book About?
September, 1983. Fourteen-year-old Bo, a boat person from Vietnam, lives in a small house in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto with his mother, Rose, and his four-year-old sister, who was born severely disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange. Named Orange, she is the family secret; Rose keeps her hidden away, and when Bo’s not at school or getting into fights on the street, he cares for her.
One day a carnival worker and bear trainer, Gerry, sees Bo in a streetfight, and recruits him for the bear wrestling circuit, eventually giving him his own cub to train. This opens up a new world for Bo–but then Gerry’s boss, Max, begins pursuing Rose with an eye on Orange for his travelling freak show. When Bo wakes up one night to find the house empty, he knows he and his cub, Bear, are truly alone. Together they set off on an extraordinary journey through the streets of Toronto and High Park. Awake at night, boy and bear form a unique and powerful bond. When Bo emerges from the park to search for his sister, he discovers a new way of seeing Orange, himself and the world around them.
All the Broken Things is a spellbinding novel, at once melancholy and hopeful, about the peculiarities that divide us and bring us together, and the human capacity for love and acceptance.
Why Should I Read This?
While there’s a definite fairy-tale feel to the story – traveling circuses, carnies, trained bears and living wild inside the forest of Toronto – there’s also a deep emotional feel to this story. Bo loves his family, but is in limbo. Brought over from Vietnam for a new start, he lives in Canada with his mother and his disfigured sister, and the residual effects of Agent Orange are a daily reminder that they are different from everyone around them. Bo has the potential to be a great athlete and student, but channels his emotions into daily fights at school and in caring for his sister. He struggles to figure out where he fits in, and it takes the course of the novel for him to realize that he doesn’t meet to fit into the world around him – instead, he can surround himself with people who already believe he belongs with them.
This story is rife with historical facts – there really was a plant in Elmira, Ontario that manufactured Agent Orange, there were traveling circuses in Ontario that featured bear wrestling, and the influx of Vietnamese boat people to Canada started about the same time as the carnival shows were outlawed. The author has shifted the timeline by about a decade, and blurred the lines of reality to create a wonderfully evocative novel of both fact and fantasy. This is a coming of age tale with a twist, as we watch both boy and bear mature over the course of the story.
What I love about this story is how the differing realities swirl together – Bo’s regular school life, the carnival existence, the almost mythical nature of the pilgrimage in High Park and the desolation of Bo’s home situation. Each adds a layer so rich in detail that you can feel your senses react as you read the book. You feel the ice cream dripping down your fingers before Bear licks it clean, follow the path of the bubbles Bo blows for his sister, and hear the noises of the Ex echoing in your mind. I found myself gulping down the chapters in great bunches, eager to find out what would happen to Bo, Bear and Orange.
Give me a Quote or Two to Convince Me.
“The cub smelled milky and was warm against him. Bigger than Orange, but Bo could still manage her. She splayed her body wide open and melted right against him, nuzzled his collar for a bit, then fell asleep. Mine, thought Bo, and Gerry must have seen it the thought in his eyes.”
“He flourished his hands like a conductor of a symphony. He leaned over her, for effect. “I am that which scares you the most,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “I am the pure ugliness of love. I am melancholy. I am joy. I am the BIG MISTAKE you once made.”
“It was the shame Teacher conveyed, by trying to fix things. He wanted her to understand about the pride of broken things.”
All the Broken Things is published by Random House Canada and is available for purchase from your favourite indie, big box book and e-book retailer. ISBN: 9780345813527, 327 pages.