'The Bear': A terror-filled ordeal of kids on their own after an attack

Claire Cameron’s novel, imagining the aftermath of a real bear attack, is an intriguing concept but maybe not scary enough

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In October 1991 on Bates Island on Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park, a young couple were the victim of a bear attack. The most terrifying thing about this story was that no one could find a reason for the attack.

By Claire Cameron
Little Brown and Co. ($25)

The bear was not suffering from any disease, and although the couple had been cooking food, the bear did not touch the meat and instead chose to partially eat the humans.

Author Claire Cameron worked as a counselor at a summer camp in Algonquin Park that year and the next. After the attack, people were afraid and constantly searching for answers as to why it happened. It was a story she heard often and it inspired a novel.

“The Bear” is Ms. Cameron’s interpretation of what would have happened had children been involved. Ms. Cameron wanted to explore what small children would have done in that situation and how they would have survived until help arrived.

“The Bear” is told in the voice of 5-year-old Anna Whyte, who is forced to take care of her younger brother, Alex (nicknamed Stick), after their parents are attacked and killed by a black bear. Ms. Cameron easily masters the unique voice of a child by switching the placement of words or slightly changing words.

Like any 5-year-old, Anna also gets distracted — detaching herself from the situation and relating everything to childish things like cookies or Barbie dolls. For most of the novel she refers to the bear as a big black dog because she believes all bears are brown like her teddy bear, Gwen.

While the novel is exciting in concept, the language is difficult to translate, and Anna’s constant tangents are disrupting and dislocating. For those who are easily distracted, it will not be hard to put this book down and walk away.

Even though the scene of the bear attack should be thrilling and horrifying, it’s confusing and does not keep the reader interested. Anna has no idea what is going on and neither does the reader.

Ms. Cameron’s commitment to keeping Anna’s voice consistent and realistic is admirable, but it just makes the novel drag on. The countless pages dedicated to the time when Anna and Alex were on their own ends up causing a loss of momentum. A time that should be captivating comes off as boring and tiring.

Despite the off-putting diction, the story is mostly interesting and convincing. During the attack, Anna’s father hides the children in a cooler that Anna affectionately calls Coleman. The next morning, Anna and Alex leave the campground at their dying mother’s request and take the canoe to a different island. Unfortunately, Anna has to resort to using her hands as paddles because the oar broke when her father used it to defend them.

Once they arrive at the other island, reality sets in a bit. Being a child, Anna does not quite understand what has happened, and although she saw the bear chomping down on her dad’s dismembered foot, she assumes that her father just got angry and left them — a recurring theme in her flashbacks.

Her mother said that they would join the children later (in an attempt to persuade them to leave), and Anna truly believes this. Although they are clearly on their own, Anna and Alex continuously call out to their parents for help, hoping they will appear.

The siblings suffer from hunger, dehydration, sunburn, poison ivy and worse. They left the campground without shoes or any food besides a tin of cookies. They did not think to bring anything else, assuming their parents would come get them and take them home. They even left wearing only their pajamas — and Alex loses his pajama pants early on, leaving him naked from the waist down.

Eventually of course they are rescued and return home to hospital care and their new guardian: their loving grandfather. This is somehow the most exciting part of the novel. Everything after the rescue is actually more interesting than the first 160 pages.

Part three quickly covers the effect that the attack had on the children, accurately covering child psychologists and neighbors dropping off casseroles. It highlights the strained relationships with friends and family and the big question: Where do we go from here?

An intriguing concept, “The Bear” could have been a great novella. Rather than stretching the story to more than 200 pages, Ms. Cameron should have kept it shorter or transferred it to a third-person voice that was less exhausting to translate.

Indigo Baloch is the editor-in-chief of the Chatham University Communique: ibaloch@chatham.edu.

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