Originally published April 2014
Short answer: It’s Room 2.0.
Long answer: Claire Cameron’s “The Bear” is a gut-wrenching trip through the Canadian wilderness with a 5-year-old as your guide, a roller coaster of emotions as you hope and pray Anna and her 2-year-old brother Alex make it to safety before they succumb to the perils of wilderness, including the lack of food and a man-hungry bear.
“The Bear” is an admitted mix of fact and fiction—Cameron jumps off an original news item from 1991, in which a Canadian couple is attacked and partially eaten by a bear in Canada’s Algonquin Park in 1991. It’s a big “What if”—what if that couple had children with them? What if those kids were left to fend for themselves in the wilderness?
In Cameron’s version, 5-year-old Anna narrates as she and 2-year-old Alex are thrown into an oversized Coleman cooler at night by their father when a bear strolls into camp. After a harrowing night in which the bear actively tries to break into the cooler and chow down on the kids, Anna frees herself and her brother, only to share a few heart-wrenching moments with her dying mother, who implores her to take Alex, get in the canoe and leave. It’s a moment that is revisited and comes beautifully to a close at the end of the novel.
As a parent, it’s always interesting to read something from a child’s point of view—”Where are Mommy and Daddy? Are they mad at me? I must be bad, they left me alone.” Rain isn’t just rain, it’s a terrifying ordeal. Rashes and illness are unexplainable. To a child, even stuffed animals take on a very real persona. For Anna, it’s her teddy Gwen. Anna talks about her “sniff”—the comforting, safe scent only a favorite stuffed animal or doll can provide. Gwen’s presence and absence are key to several emotional moments in this read.
Also engaging? Anna’s relationship with Alex, whom she refers to by the nickname, “Stick.” Put yourself in her 5-year-old shoes—now responsible for the welfare of her younger brother, who alternates between being a nuisance and a comfort throughout their ordeal. The moments of separation are killer. I had to force myself to slow down and not race through pages to make sure they are reunited.
Cameron does an exquisite job with Anna’s story, making it so easy to fall back into that world we’ve all left behind—a child’s understanding of how the world works, and how children rationalize what is happening to them when answers are hard to come by. And the closure Anna seeks, she finds. Trust me.
A quick read at just over 200 pages and very engaging. Bittersweet, and lovely. If you liked the childlike voice of “Room,” you’ll be captivated here.