Perhaps even more so because it’s based on a true story in a place I’m well familiar with, The Bear by Canadian author Claire Cameron absolutely devastated me. A family of four goes camping on Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park, at Bates Island. In a horrifying and chaotic sequence of beginning pages, the parents are attacked, killed, and—yes, as is naively, gruesomely witnessed by Anna, our narrator—eaten by a black bear. The children, a five-year-old (Anna) and her toddler brother (Alex, aka Stick), who have been shoved into a Coleman cooler by their father in a desperate effort to protect them, do not comprehend what is happening. When they finally emerge from the Coleman, Anna takes tear-inducing instructions from her dying mother to canoe off the island to be safe. Run aground on a nearby island, the children struggle to survive as their young psyches compute what is happening only enough to get by. I should say here: while the children in this book are added (the true story involves only a man and woman), we are never asked to suspend our belief for the sake of the story: the children’s experience and the narrative voice are wholly acceptable. Anna’s sentence structure and thought process set a pace that never falters, even as she struggles to make sense of her surroundings and what is demanded of her; her many tangents serve as anchors with which we she keeps herself moored, things she can still identify, recall, and depend on.
Very rarely do I read a book in one sitting, but last night I picked it up at 10:30 and finished it in just over two hours. I actually went back through, thinking I must have skipped things in my eagerness, but everything I looked at I remembered. After the first few pages, I had wanted to stop. An almost overwhelming feeling of resistance to the book made me close it, at first. I’m not sure whether it was the point of view of a young child, which did take a little getting used to, or something else. Maybe that other feeling you get at the same time as being morbidly fascinated. Maybe fear.
But I opened it again, obviously, and tore through it (let’s not make the comparison to a hungry bear through a campsite). An excellent choice, the ending. Very well done. While it has a necessarily different tone, Cameron manages to make it flow seamlessly from the previous part and finish on a hopeful note.
Still, The Bear made me cry and subject my husband, when he came to bed, to my reflections on life and death especially, but also empathy for the kids (I won’t subject you, too. I was blubbery and went on about how this couple went through life, making choices, growing up, meeting, being together, deciding to go camping, and then BAM! they’re attacked by a bear and eaten. La fin. One day you’re there and then you’re not. I said, so fine, maybe we don’t all live to a hundred, but why can’t we all just die in our sleep, whatever age we’re meant to go? Why so many terrible ways? Eaten by a bear. It’s so utterly horrific and sad and overwhelming. I mean, this really happened: I remember it. It was 1991, and I remember, because I was both fascinated and freaked out).
It may be inevitable that this book gets compared to Emma Donoghue’s Room, but it would do the reader well not to hold up one against the other. It wouldn’t be entirely fair. While both are based on true stories and told from the perspective of a five-year-old who experiences a traumatic event, the voices are quite different. Like Room, though, this novel is going to stay with me a long time. I hope I can go camping in Algonquin again…
PS. As a bookseller, I met many people who were afraid to read Room. I dare you to read The Bear. These kinds of books: they’re not just reads, they’re experiences. What books are meant to be.