The Bear, by Claire Cameron. A Reaction

The Bear, by Claire Cameron
The Bear, by Claire Cameron

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.

14 thoughts on “The Bear, by Claire Cameron. A Reaction

    1. If you enjoyed Room, then yes. But try not to compare the two. They do have some similarities: both told by a five-year-old, both go through trauma and end up with their grandparent(s), and both are triggered by or based on true stories (which is really what had me bawling, in combination with the sensitive and heart-rending way both authors handled their topics. But there are significant differences too, one being that the five-year-olds are at different levels of cognitive capabilities and innocence. Please tell me what you think: I can’t stop thinking about this book!

  1. I think we wrote the same review ;) I also said how I read it in one sitting, because I just could not put it down. What a great escape from the “normal” books I read!

    1. I agree! Although would I call it a great escape? It was more like getting lost in the woods, which I have done. One reason this book hit me was that I was separated from my group and lost on what I thought was an island, north of Peterborough, while on a week-long portage trip. I’ve never been more scared in my life. I had a hundred-pound barrel strapped to me, two paddles, and a life jacket. The sound died around me when I finally got up the courage to yell for help. Three hours later, my back was rubbed raw, I had no idea whether to stay where I was or try walking, I was riddled with mosquito bites and all sweaty, and I finally just rested the barrel on a high rock and leaned against it, while it was still strapped to me. I had been afraid to take it off because I needed help to get it on. I saw moose tracks and scat. I feared having to sleep out there in the woods, and thought about sleeping in the barrel. I was finally found by a logger on an ATV. My group had come across the loggers and were just about to radio for helicopter aid. Looking back, I’m not sure why I was so scared, aside from the fact that I’d never been more lost in my life. The woods were thick, no paths, and I had no clue where I was. When the sound died around me, I realized just how alone I was. The kids in this book, on the island that turned out to be only a hundred metres from Bates, reminded me of this horrifying experience.

  2. Yikes! That sounds like a visceral reading experience! I do love a book that has an impact on me – not sure I could take this one, though. It’s the kids, eh, they get you every time.

    I really enjoyed Room – well, the first part at least – and didn’t know it was based on a true tale. Interesting.

  3. Well, I shouldn’t have said based on, exactly. One case in particular did trigger the idea for the story, she said—that is, the Josef Fritzl case. (HORRIFYING: father locks daughter away in basement, rapes her for 24 years, fathers 7 children with her. Three of those kids, one of them five at the time of the discovery, were locked down there with her and had never been outside that space.)

    The stuff stories are made of, yes? Not to trivialize them, but rather to perhaps wrap our minds around them, to empathize, to ask questions.

    The Bear, too, was indeed affecting. It was horrifying but only in the way that our adults minds processed the five-yr-old’s naive interpretations of what she saw and heard. Somehow that made it much more disturbing for me than if it had been described by an adult. But not so disturbing that I stopped!

    1. I never thought of it as devaluing the real tragedy! Rather, I found it an empathetic treatment of what it might have been like had they had kids. This event happened while the author was working at Algonquin, and she was very much affected by it. Had she written only the real-life account, there wouldn’t have been much to write. But she wanted to write about the impact of what happened, and the only way to do that in novel form was to reimagine the story, based on fact. It is indeed a horrible experience, but I thought Cameron dealt with it well.

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