In October 1991, a couple camping on Bates Island in Algonquin Park, Ontario, were attacked and killed by a bear. Claire Cameron’s book is based on this attack, but she added the kids. The Bear was recently long listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
My family went camping every summer when I was growing up, and we continue to do it with our own children. We have often joked about seeing bears. My Dad, at 6’4″, was always appointed as protector, but luckily we have never come across one in all these years. I know that this is partly because most of our camping takes place in Nova Scotia, where there are not as many bears as there would be in other places, like Northern Ontario. But I know they are still around, and last year we did see a bear cub on our way into the National Park in New Brunswick. I have always thought bears to be beautiful animals, but I think I’ll stick with the raccoons and porcupines.
The Bear is told through the eyes of Anna, a five-year-old girl. She is left alone to fend for herself and her two-year-old brother, Stick, after their parents are killed by a bear on their camping trip. The kids don’t actually see the attack, which is a relief for us reading the book, but she knows enough to be scared and confused.
Cameron does a remarkable job taking us into the mind of a young girl who is trying to figure out what to do in a terrifying situation. We get to hear Anna’s thoughts, and how she rationalizes everything to herself. At times, she tries to be grown-up, mimicking her mother when talking to Stick. Other times, she acts more her age; wondering why their parents don’t come and get them, feeling like she must have done something very bad to make them stay away, inventing fantastical stories and reasoning for the circumstances she finds herself in, trying to draw comfort from her teddy bear. She also spends just as much time being angry at her brother, and jealous of him, as she does loving him and taking care of him.
I do a big roar and Stick turns around and his eyes are puffy but they still go big and he looks scared and all he does is cry. Stupid Stick. He will be no good when black dog comes it will be all up to me and everything is up to me. I turn away and stab at the ground and I find a softer part where I can stick in the stick and make it stay and I practice. Over and over I roar like a daddy and I pretend the spot is black dog and he is scared and I get him dead. And I am the queen of the land and no one else can be.
Sometimes it is a joy to hear her thoughts, like when she is playing with Stick or remembering something happy. But other times, it is heartwrenching to hear her trying to make sense of her situation. She can’t understand why her parents aren’t coming to get them. She tries so hard to be “good”, so they will come back.
She doesn’t answer and neither does Daddy and no Stick so I cry and wait. They don’t come and it must be because they are so mad this time. I cry harder to show they better come soon and my tears are dropping in the water at my feet so it is getting deeper and I will drowned in the water if they don’t come and get me soon.
The hardest part of the book, for me, was after they were rescued and brought home. Anna is brought back to a house that is hers, but it feels different. Grandpa lives there now, with his chair. Mommy and Daddy are in heaven, and ‘the black dog’ is still inside her. She hasn’t spoken since she came home, and the lady with the red mouth who comes to watch her draw seems to misinterpret her drawings, which, I think shows how hard it would be to get into the head of a child who is not speaking. It is too easy to make assumptions and think we know what is going on. I think dealing with the trauma after the event would be the hardest part to write about, especially if you haven’t experienced it in your own life. I found it realistic and heart-wrenching.
I have heard that some people weren’t completely happy with Anna being the only narrator, but I liked it, and thought that it gave the book a different perspective on the events that happened. Another thing I loved about the book was the ending. It couldn’t have been better.
For anyone who is reluctant to pick this book up, because you are afraid it might be horrifying, don’t be. There is a great article called Reading (and Writing) Through Fear that talks about exactly that.
Does anyone have any good bear stories?