1. You will cry and it is embarrassing to cry while reading on a plane.
2. You will regret your choice of accommodations.
Claire Cameron’s new novel, The Bear, reminded me of one of the reasons I’m not a camper. It’s also one of the most moving books I’ve ever read about a sibling relationship.
I am glad I read it on our back patio, where no one could see me cry. I’m not talking a few tears. I’m talking put down the book, leave the chair, get a kleenex, sit back down, read some more, then go back and get the whole box of tissues. I don’t look for that in a novel, but The Bear was worth every tear.
In October of 1991, the very alive and non-fictional Raymond Jajubauskas and Carola Frehe camped out in the wilderness of Algonquin Park, northeast of Toronto. They cooked a meal before a large male black bear found them, killed them each with a blow to the neck, and proceeded to eat them. Slowly. He was still guarding their remains when they were found several days later. A broken oar appears to have been their only defense.
Author Claire Cameron worked as a camp counselor at Algonquin Park the summers before and after the attack, and it lingered in her mind and heart. “The Bear is based on my memories of and research into this bear attack. I added the kids,” she writes.
The kids are Anna and Alex, ages 5 and toddler, but we know them as “Nana” and “Stick” or “Sticky,” their names for each other. This novel is Anna’s story – in her 5-year-old voice – which against all odds is not annoying.
Anna awakens in the night to the sound of her mother screaming: “I hear Momma yelling and I keep my eyes closed. Dreams aren’t real. I know that because my momma doesn’t yell. . . . Momma doesn’t yell about cookies and she doesn’t yell when I spill my glue on the carpet even though the glue was brand new and it was all gone. She says she only will yell if I am about to get hit by a bus. She says maybe sometimes people yell because things are hard but if you go past the things that are hard you can be very very strong. And now she is yelling.”
Things get worse. Anna’s father shoves the kids in a cooler and latches it shut. They hear what follows.
Much, much later, the kids are eventually able to pry out of the cooler, after Sticky has had such a terribly pungent poop that Anna can stand it no longer. Anna finds her mother still a little bit alive in the grass. Her mother is able to convince her to get off the island in the family’s canoe, and a confused Anna entices Sticky into the canoe with a tin of cookies.
Everything that happens next is both believable and unbelievable. The children survive. Anna is sometimes caring and sometimes brutal with her little brother, as siblings are. Many years later they return to the campsite:
“I’ve always wondered: Why them and not us? We were little kids and would have been the easier prey.” [Alex]
“We will never know exactly why.” [Anna]
“That’s what I mean. ‘Why’ is missing the point. The bear could’ve just swam across and got us, but he didn’t.”
“He spared us.”
“No.” He tilts his head and whispers. “He was full.”
This book does not have an ounce of sentimentality. It is not a book with a “big heart.” It is a book that looks square on at love, the inexplicable, and the natural world – and still finds reason to hope.
It doesn’t give me a reason to set up a tent in the woods, though.