Friday, April 4, 2014

The Bear by Claire Cameron

In 1991, a bear killed a couple who were camping on an island in Algonquin Park. Claire Cameron based her novel The Bear on this incident, but she added two young children. They survived. That's not a spoiler; this story is about how that might happen. It's also a portrait of the bond between siblings.

If you love unique voices in fiction and especially if you enjoy child narrators, The Bear is for you. The viewpoint is that of five-year-old Anna, who follows her mother's final instructions to take care of her two-year-old brother. Anna calls him Stick because he is always sticky. She has a believable love/hate relationship with him. Anna's voice is convincing and endearing.

Cameron drew me all the way back into the volatile emotions of childhood. I recognized the sibling rivalry, self-absorption, imperiousness, magnanimity, and pride in new accomplishments. Anna gets annoyed when she has trouble helping Stick to get his pyjama top off. "Stop growing your head." She gets angry that her mother isn't there to feed them when they are hungry. "Momma is the lunch."

Anna's terror at night, not recognizing the sound of her brother's snores, is palpable. "I can't see the animal but then maybe I can. A black shape is close to the tree and it has a low growl that goes grrrr gaaaa grrrr gaaaa to let me know that it is there. And it is going to eat me because I don't have an army or sword except the one in my mind and I can't find it."

I fondly remember camping with my family and cousins at Pinehurst Lake in northeastern Alberta in about 1970. It took several trips in a motorboat to get all of us and our gear -- including a metal Coleman cooler similar to the one described by Cameron -- to a secluded spot across the lake. How different that trip would have been if an atypical bear had been in the vicinity.

Readalikes: Room (Emma Donoghue); The First True Lie (Marina Mander); The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Stephen King).

And for francophones, here's a link to one of my favourite Tetes-a-claques videos, the one where Lucien and Monique are camping and argue about whether or not a bear will eat toothpaste:

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