"All the Broken Things" by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

It is 1983 and fourteen-year-old Bo has arrived in Canada with his mother Thao and his four-year-old sister.  Bo and his family are refugees from Vietnam and his sister is nicknamed Orange for the severe and disfiguring effects she has received from being exposed to  Agent Orange in utero.  As they try to adjust to a new country, Thao keeps Orange hidden away while Bo spends his days getting into fights at school and on the street.

One day, while fighting a boy at school, Bo is approached by a carnival worker and bear trainer, Gerry.  Gerry wants to recruit Bo for the bear wrestling circuit and to do so, he gives Bo his own bear cub to train.  But Gerry’s boss Max has hopes of putting Orange in his travelling freak show and this doesn’t sit well with Bo.  When Bo awakes one morning to find that his mother has left with Orange and isn’t coming back, Bo and the cub are left to fend for themselves.

All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is an incredible story about love, acceptance, and the differences that both separate and connect us.  Based in the real world of the Ontario bear wrestling circuit of the 1980’s and haunted by the fact that Agent Orange was also produced right here in Ontario, this novel takes on heavy themes that are so beautifully written.

This novel was passed on to me with the note that it is a heartbreaking read and is it ever.  But beneath the sadness lies the extraordinary heart and soul of a young man.  The relationship he has with his sister is beautiful and the way he cares for and protects her is incredible.  There is such a tenderness in his care that jumps off the page at the reader.  The other thing that is striking are the competing emotions of love and hate  that are felt by Thao toward little Orange, who through no fault of her own is a reminder of the past.  And this escalates into a mixture of those same emotions that Bo feels toward his mother.  What moved me most was this part:

His mother's face flickered with emotion when she handed Sister over: disgust and misery hidden behind stoicism.  Pity mixed in there too, which he could stand even less than disgust.  At least disgust did not pretend to righteousness.  Orange had come out of her body.  It was this creation that formed her disgust, he knew.  If it had been someone else's child, his mother might have had more compassion.  As it was, she simply hated herself for making this.  And he hated her for it too, a hate mixed with love. (p.106)

What I love most about this book is how Kuitenbrouwer combines two things you expect to be so far removed from each other - bear wrestling and Agent Orange - and blends them together into an incredibly touching story.  This is a fantastic novel and if this is any indication of what CanLit has to offering 2014, it’s going to be a great year.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.  The opinions expressed above are all my own.


  1. I haven't heard of this book before, but it sounds fantastic. I think this is going to be a great year for Canadian fiction!

    1. It is going to be a good year. A lot of big names released books last year, so it looks like this year will be about discovering new (at least to me) writers.

  2. I.Absolutely.Loved.This.Novel.
    It was unrelentingly good. *sigh*

  3. Wow! I will have to add it to my list. Thanks!


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