Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book Review: The Bear by Claire Cameron

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From the back of the book: While camping with her family on a remote island, five-year-old Anna awakes in the night to the sound of her mother screaming. A rogue black bear, three hundred pounds of fury, is attacking the family's campsite -- and pouncing on her parents as prey.

At her dying mother's faint urging, Anna manages to get her brother into the family's canoe and paddle away. But when the canoe runs aground on the edge of the woods, the sister and brother must battle hunger, the elements, and a wilderness alive with danger. Lost and completely alone, they find that their only hope resides in Anna's heartbreaking love for her family, and her struggle to be brave when nothing in her world seems safe anymore.

This is a story with a small narrator and a big heart. Cameron gracefully plumbs Anna's young perspective on family, responsibility, and hope, charting both a tragically premature loss of innocence and a startling evolution as Anna reasons through the impossible situations that confront her.

Lean and confident, and told in the innocent and honest voice of a five-year-old, The Bear is a transporting tale of loss -- but also a poignant and surprisingly funny adventure about love and the raw instincts that enable us to survive.


The first thing I noticed about The Bear by Claire Cameron was that the cover reminded me of Room by Emma Donoghue, and after finishing the book, I can’t help but wonder if that was a bit intentional, as like Room, The Bear is a story about an unspeakable tragedy told from the perspective of 5 year old Anna.

While camping, Anna is awakened by her father one night only to be shoved into “Coleman” with her two year old brother (nicknamed "Stick"). Anna and her brother remain in Coleman for quite some time, wondering if they were bad, where their parents went, and what the giant black dog with terrible breath is doing carrying a giant bone around their campsite. As an adult reading the book, we can quickly infer that the “dog” is in fact a black bear who has killed Anna and Stick’s parents, and that they survived due to the quick thinking of their father, but none of this is clear to Anna, who quickly becomes the caretaker for herself and her brother. 

Some readers may have a difficult time adjusting to the narrative style, which includes a lot of run-on sentences, absolutely no filter, and thoughts that jump around quite a bit. However, as the parent of a four year old, I can tell you that this is exactly how kids that age speak. It would not be unusual at all for my daughter to say something like, ‘I’m hungry is it snack time I like flowers when will dad come home I want to watch Sesame Street. I’m hungry!’ and indeed, this is the sort of sentence structure that you’re likely to read in The Bear. Personally, I thought that Cameron did a fantastic job capturing the “voice” of Anna, and cracked up a number of times at the patterns of speech that I find absolutely typical for that age. It may take some getting used to as a reader, but I felt like it brought a level of authenticity to the story that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. Additionally, the story was told in a way that was believable as being narrated by a five year old—you know how sometimes when books are narrated by children, they end up knowing and understanding far more than anyone that age actually would in real life? Not so in The Bear, which I really appreciated. 

Like novels such as Gone Girl and Room, The Bear definitely was not a pleasant story to read. On more than one occasion, I had to put the book down and walk away for a time because it was just so awful to even think about (especially given that the book is based on a true story). But as far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good book. It was in turns terrifying, electric, sad, touching, and even a little bit funny. It was narrated by a character that I came to care about. It had an appropriate and relevant conclusion, and overall I found it to be a wonderful book about loss and surviving tragedy.

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from Net Galley in exchange for my review. As I hope you know by now, the fact that I received a free copy of this book will in no way influence my review-- I couldn't lie about a book even if I wanted to. 

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