Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Bear

Claire Cameron’s The Bear is narrated by five-year old Anna, who is camping on Bates Island in Algonquin Park with her mother, father and three-year old brother, Alex (whom she calls Stick), when she’s awoken in the dead of night by her mother’s screams and her father’s frantic appearance at their tent. Convinced that she’s somehow done something wrong and that her father is angry with her, Anna doesn’t realize that her father’s shouts and desperation stems from an ongoing bear attack. In his panicked bid to protect his two children, he stuffs the two in a large camping cooler, using a rock to leave it locked but cracked open to provide air. Anna conveys her fear saying “Daddy is hugging me but it’s not a snuggle. It is hard and squeezy and my breath shoots out of my body.” Trapped in the pitch black cooler with Stick, the terrified child convinces herself that what’s outside is a big black dog much like that of her neighbor Mrs. Buchanan’s dog, Snoopy.

As time passes, Anna hears the big black dog begin batting and scraping at the cooler. Through the cracks she sees “the nose lifts up and a big tongue jumps out. I see a black lip and a tooth that is very white and long. The fur is a little bit wet and there is pink juice on it.” Hungry, scared and desperate to get out of their cramped confines, Anna and Stick finally dare to come out when they get no response to their cries for mommy and daddy, and also no sounds of the big black dog (aka bear). Finally free, Anna looks at the destruction in the camp but sees no sign of her parents. She spots a bitten apple on the ground, and takes a bite herself, enjoying the sweet juice in her mouth. Along with other scattered items she innocently shares the fact that she sees “a piece of meat on the ground…that has Daddy’s shoe” and thinks to herself that her dad won’t like the big dog playing with his sneakers. Lost in her thoughts, she hears a whispering soft voice call to her and at first fears it’s a ghost, but quickly realizes it’s her mother.

Anna fearfully approaches her bloodied mother who is partially covered by leaves, and tearfully listens as her mom begs her to get Alex and herself in the canoe and off the island. Resting her soft cheek against her mother’s she is reassured by her mother’s promise that “we will be waiting. Daddy and I will be there” and so using a tin of cookies as a lure, Anna gets Stick into the canoe and away from the shore; paddling with her small hands until they reach the deserted woods across the lake. Lost and alone, Anna and Stick must deal with the elements, the countless dangers found in nature, hunger, and even a blistering sunburn and bug bites. In her too young role of babysitter she awaits her parents, sure that it’s only a matter of time for after all “I am a good girl and our family is four.” Battling pain, frustration and fear, Anna is pushed beyond endurance but battles on for her mother, father, and Stick.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Bear, a chilling, suspenseful and poignant tale, though I did have a minor issue with the story’s delivery that kept me from completely loving it. While the story is a gripping and moving survival tale that to some extent successfully captures the voice of a child in a perilous situation - the fear, uncertainty, and at times their whiny self-centeredness, especially where it pertained to Anna’s relationship with Stick; I also felt that the use of Anna’s five-year old voice as narrator marginally diminished the tale due to the author’s unsuccessful attempt at delivering a consistent voice for her protagonist throughout the entire tale. At times written older, at others younger than her supposed five-year old age, you’d get rambling baby talk that digressed from the main narrative and made the events confusing to follow, while at other times Anna would make these deep almost philosophical comments totally incongruous to a typical five-year old.

Even with the mentioned inconsistencies, Anna was still an endearing protagonist – sweet and precocious – that became an albeit reluctant but inspiring heroine for whom you couldn’t help but root; doing the best within her limited means and capabilities to protect her brother. My heart broke for her in those instances when she pondered why her parents weren’t coming as promised and if it was in some way her fault. In her innocent ruminations, she also shared revealing tidbits of information on her parent’s relationship (her father’s rages and the couple’s temporary separation prior to the camping trip) which reveal she was already carrying a heavy burden on her young shoulders even prior to this dramatic turn of events; at one point heartbreakingly saying “I can’t remember what I did to get him so mad, but I never really do.”

The sibling relationship between Anna and Stick is beautifully captured in the book. Through her memories, we see how in the safety of home and family, Anna experienced the normal frustrations of having a baby brother; feeling like they love him best and he gets away with everything. Yet with the honest astuteness of a young child facing an uncertain future (“we are only two, just Stick and me”) Anna discovers a newfound love and appreciation for her brother and a determined commitment to honor her mother’s dying wish that she protect him (“I am the only person on the whole entire earth that can understand him. It is up to me to save him because no one else can.”)

The Bear is an emotional and quick read that proves gumption and bravery can be found in even the smallest of heroes; a tale of loss, love and hope.