Claire Cameron’s The Bear has made a number of best seller lists and it took me a while to understand why, but in the end, I was gripped by the tale. Ms. Cameron took the idea for this novel from a real life incident that occurred in Algonquin Park, where she was staff at a camp in her youth.
In 1991, an urban couple camped for the night on a remote island in Algonquin Park. When they didn’t return after a weekend, search parties were sent out and discovered their bodies at the campsite, partially eaten by a large black bear who was standing over them.
Ms. Cameron takes this incident and fictionalizes it, inserting two small children into the family. The entire story is told from the point of view of the elder of the children, a five year old girl Anna. The reader understands that there are tensions in the couple, from the seemingly innocent remarks that Anna makes, but they are together here and seemingly at peace. They are “four” as Anna expresses it.
The reader experiences the bear attack through the eyes of Anna, but knows more than the children, who are hidden inside a large Coleman cooler by their father when the attack starts. They have only smells and the sight of claws and wet nose to determine what they are dealing with and Anna identifies the animal as a large black dog. Throughout the novel, we are guided by the five year old voice of Anna, who is urged to take her younger brother off the island in the canoe, by her dying mother. Throughout, the reader, although guided by Anna, is aware of the larger reality,which the book’s characters are not.
We know, as Anna and her little brother “Stick” do not that their parents are dead and that they are completely alone in the woods, if not the world. We follow Anna as she tries to handle her reality and save her brother — her progression from considering her brother a pest and a burden to realizing her love for him and her bravery and expressions of compassion. They break out in blisters (former campers w ill recognize this) and struggle through a dark night until they are found. Ms. Cameron says that the book is not just a frightening tale, but a story of grief, and of how you internalize and live with it.
The children survive and part of the interest in the latter part of the novel is the misinterpretation of their gestures by well meaning adults.
Anna’s voice can be tedious at times as the entire novel is told in the long narrative of a five year old, but the voice largely rings true as Anna’s thoughts swerve from the present to the past, to childish preoccupations when the reader knows the danger she is in. Anna is scared but determined and puts one foot in front of the other to save her brother and herself.
You can see in your mind’s eye, perfectly clearly, Anna and her brother, the chubby little “Stick”, Through the voice that the author assumes, she puts us in the body of Anna allowing the reader to visualize and care deeply for these struggling children.
A good book, but I suggest you read it at home and not on a camping trip in the woods.
Claire Cameron is interviewed on Shelagh Rogers’ The Next Chapter
The Bear is published by Doubleday Canada