BY MONIQUE POLAK, POSTMEDIA NEWS FEBRUARY 28, 2014
The Bear, by Claire Cameron, is set in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park where the author worked as a wilderness instructor.
There’s something archetypal about the story of two siblings left to fend for themselves in a forest. Abandoned by their father, Hansel and Gretel had to outsmart a hungry witch. Their story, recorded by the Brothers Grimm, is told — as most fairy tales are — in the third person.
What makes Claire Cameron’s The Bear so remarkable and riveting is that this story of two siblings lost in the woods is told from the child’s point of view.
Cameron, a Toronto author whose first novel, The Line Painter, won the Ontario Library Service’s Northern Lit Award, has an insider’s knowledge of Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, where The Bear is set. In 1991 and 1992, Cameron worked as a wilderness instructor at a camp in the park. In October 1991, a couple, camping at the park on Bates Island, were mauled to death by a black bear. That incident inspired this novel.
The real-life couple were camping alone. In The Bear, Cameron gives her couple two children: five-year-old Anna and her little brother, Alex, whom Anna calls — not always affectionately — Stick. Anna explains that he “always has sticky hands” and likes to play with sticks.
Cameron does a masterful job of capturing Anna’s voice and inner world. Anna often speaks in run-on sentences, one thought leading breathlessly to the next. She says about her brother: “He bugs me lots of times because I am five years old and soon I will be six but it is warm sleeping next to him.”
In Anna’s mind, everything is alive, including the tent she and Stick share, and the cooler her dad forces the siblings into when the black bear appears. For Anna, the tent zipper “has teeth that grab my skin” and the cooler is named Coleman: “We bring him on canoe trips to carry our food and keep it cold. And we use him so that bears can’t rob the food from us.”
Anna is the quintessential naive narrator. When she hears her mother yell, she tells herself she must be dreaming because “(Momma) says she will only yell if I am about to get hit by a bus.” In an odd way, Anna’s naiveté works in her favour. If she were older and could more fully understand what happened on their campsite, she might be too paralyzed to save herself and Stick.
It is also, of course, Anna’s naiveté that makes The Bear such a harrowing read. Though this isn’t a long novel, readers will likely need to pause along the way to get a break from the horror of this story. Peeking through Coleman’s opening, Anna thinks she sees a black dog. When she and Stick finally emerge from the cooler, Anna is upset by “this meat that the black dog left on the ground.” She cannot understand why the meat “has Daddy’s shoe and I don’t know why he would have stuck his shoe on the meat.”
Despite the horrific turn of events, Anna remains an ordinary child, with an ordinary child’s concerns. She resents Stick for getting too much attention from their parents: “Stick always gets the special things.” She resents her mother for not allowing her to have a Barbie, and is unimpressed by her mother’s reasoning: “Barbie only has lumps for boobs and they are too big for her waist.”
Anna knows she is responsible for Stick, even if he is a nuisance. She explains that “Stick is like having an extra bag. Except a bag sits still and holds clothes. This bag is wet and eating all the cookies and showing me he has some when I have none.”
Perhaps because Anna and Stick are not teenagers, this novel never descends into the brutality of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. And yet, The Bear has its share of brutal moments. Anna understands that she has power over Stick: “I am bigger and I can punch him any time I want. No one is here to stop me.”
To Cameron’s credit, there are moments when she manages to make poetry from Anna’s thoughts and feelings. When Anna senses the black dog is near, she describes her fear in words that will resonate with readers who are far older and more sophisticated than she is: “My heart rolls out of my chest and onto the ground and I can’t push it back in.”
But the real beauty in this novel, despite the absence of the children’s parents, is its depiction of parental love. It’s the attention and love Anna’s mother and father have given her that make Anna secure and strong. That love is demonstrated in the simplest acts.
Anna knows, for instance, that she and her mom have the same blue eyes: “We checked in the bathroom mirror when I stood on the sink and she held me so I wouldn’t fall and we leaned in and looked at our eyes up close.”