Five-year-old Anna and two-year-old Alex (aka Stick) are camping on a remote island with their parents when the unimaginable happens - a rogue black bear attacks their campsite. Through quick-thinking, Anna and Stick are saved by their father but unfortunately, their parents aren’t so lucky. When Anna and Stick emerge from their hiding place, their dying mother urges Anna to get herself and Stick in the family canoe and paddle away.
But very quickly the canoe runs aground and the two children are left to fend for themselves in the wilderness. As they battle hunger, the elements, and the looming presence of the black bear, Anna does all she can to stay brave and save her family.
The Bear, by Claire Cameron, is a heartbreaking novel of family, love, and survival. Told in the voice of Anna and reminiscent of Emma Donaghue’s Room, it will have readers glued to the pages, unable to put it down. A difficult book to read, it will pull on your heart, have you an emotional mess, and haunt you even after you turn the last page.
In October of 1991, a pair camping in Ontario’s Algonquin Park were attacked and killed by a black bear. This sort of thing is extremely rare and there was absolutely no reason that could be given for the attack. Cameron was personally affected by this as she was a summer camp counsellor in Algonquin at the time. This incident is the catalyst for the book, though Cameron took it upon herself to add the children.
When I started this book, I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle it. I knew the topic would make for a very interesting book but I wasn’t sure how I would be able to handle it through the eyes of a child. And at first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to handle the five-year-old voice the whole way through the book. But Cameron proved me wrong.
Yes, it was difficult to follow two young children through this sort of story. But that’s what makes the situation so real and alive. To read from the viewpoint of an adult, it would have been straightforward, a tale of getting out of the woods. But children don’t see the world the way we do, they don’t understand the magnitude of the situation, but know that something needs to be done. In terms of reading through Anna’s voice, Cameron captures it perfectly, the way a child thinks, how her thoughts go all over the place, and how she sees the world before her. My only criticism of the book would be that I thought it could be longer, that there was more to the story of the children in the wilderness, that the return to the spot could have had just a bit more to it.
This is a tough book to read, especially if you have children. Anna and Stick reminded me so much of my own children, right down to how Anna understands what Stick is saying when others don’t (my son has a speech delay and often my daughter was the only who knew what he was saying). These moments brought the situation way too close to home - what if these were my children? And I have heard people say they don’t want to read the book for that reason.
However, this isn’t just a story about two children trying to survive in the wilderness, it’s about family, determination, grief, reality and fantasy. It’s difficult but it’s worth the read. As someone whose sole reason for never going camping is “bears,” I recommend putting aside whatever hesitations you have about the book and giving it a chance.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of Random House of Canada. The opinions expressed above are my own.