Reviewed by Becky Benoit
Bears have always figured fearsomely in the human imagination, but I think that here in Fort McMurray, bears are a little more real to us than in other places in the country. Here, it’s entirely possible that you’ll spot a bear during a quiet evening walk along the river. Most of us have seen bears placidly searching the roadside for berries as we journey to Edmonton or out Highway 881. Seeing a bear is always an exciting experience, because even as we marvel at their beauty, we understand we’re encountering something that is truly wild, and inherently dangerous.
Black bears, as a rule, tend to be fairly shy creatures, usually fleeing from human encounters. They don’t have the fearsome reputation of grizzlies, which are known to be cantankerous – by comparison, black bears are generally more curious about humans than aggressive, rarely attacking or preying on people. Still, there are exceptions, as this spring’s tragic fatal bear attack showed. Bears are ultimately unpredictable, just like any wild animal, and sometimes the best efforts by humans are still not enough to protect us.
With bears so much on our minds lately, I was immediately drawn to Claire Cameron’s Bear. As a mom, it’s our innate instinct to protect our children from harm. Imagining what might happen if our little ones were cast out in the wilderness on their own, at the mercy of the elements and left to fend for themselves, is something almost too terrifying for a parent to imagine. Cameron does more than just imagine this scenario, she brings it to brilliant life, using the voice of a precocious 5-year old. It’s a bold move for an author to write an entire novel from the perspective of a young child, and in Cameron’s case, the gamble pays off. Bear is a gripping, heartrending and ultimately redemptive tale of love, family and survival.
For five-year old Anna, the highlight of her summer is the family’s camping trip to a remote island in Algonquin Park, only a few hours’ drive from Toronto. Anna is looking forward to spending time with her dad, who has been conspicuously absent from the family cottage this summer.
But, as Anna and her 3-year old brother, whom Anna and the rest of the family affectionately calls Stick, sleep, their world is rent apart by a moment of shocking violence. The children are awakened by the screams of their parents as a rogue black bear invades their campsite. Anna’s father only has time to hide the children in a Coleman food cooler, wedged open slightly with a rock, before the bear’s murderous rampage claims his life.
After a terrifying night spent hiding in the cooler, the children escape. The bear, for the moment, is nowhere to be seen, but Anna and Stick find something much more disturbing: their mother, close to death, lies in a pool of blood in the bushes. With the last reserves of her strength, Anna’s mother tells her to take her brother and escape the island in the canoe.
With no food or water, no warm clothes and no way of knowing where to go, the two young children set off on their own. Wearing only thin pajamas and clutching a tin of cookies, Anna and Stick make their way off the island and into the wilderness of Algonquin Park, where Anna must somehow find food, water and shelter for herself and her young brother.
I loved this story. At first glance, it’s a pulse-pounding adventure story of two small people facing off against the cruel wilderness, but deeper down, it’s also a story of the love between siblings and between a parent and child, and the bonds that hold a family together in the face of adversity.
Cameron embraces her story, and her characters, with the unmistakable ring of authenticity – she worked as a counselor at a summer camp in Algonquin Park in 1991, when an incident in the park made national headlines. A black bear attacked and killed two campers who had taken all the necessary precautions against bears. Cameron’s personal closeness to the incident inspired her to write the book, and her desire to tell the story right rings true in her writing. Although she added the children to the narrative, Cameron’s portrayal of 5-year old Anna is dead-on. Her experiences as a mom of two children give her amazing insight into how a 5-year old’s brain works and how they view the world, and lend a truth to her character that is heartrending and authentic.
One word of warning: the entire novel, save the last chapter, is written from the perspective of 5-year old Anna, and can be a difficult slog at times as Cameron faithfully follows the circuitous thought patterns of a child. If you can stick with it, though, the resulting narrative is a truly beautiful and redemptive story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished the final satisfying chapter.