After my first disappointing foray into audiobooks, I was rather reluctant to give audio another shot. Desperation drove me to it. Listening to the same songs on a long drive is mind numbing, and The Bear was anything but mind numbing. The Bear was a much more successful listening experience, even if it’s not something that I would have picked up in paper form.
The Bear first came on my radar while attending a readers’ advisory training session last month. The guest author was Clair Cameron, who read an excerpt of her book. I was immediately struck by how this book sounded. The Bear is narrated by a young girl and it was this style of narration that decided me on trying this one out in audio. Anna is five years old and is on a camping trip with her parents and younger brother, Stick, at Algonquin Park. The novel opens late one night while Anna watches her parents as they enjoy the camp fire. As Anna dozes in and out of sleep she starts to hear something that does not belong: the black dog. In the aftermath of the bear attack, Anna is left alone with her brother and she struggles to understand what happens and to care for her brother. The Bear is an imaginative and unique take on the survival story. In some ways it much simpler as Anna is a child, but the complexity comes from the fact that the adult reader does understand what’s happening even if Anna does not. The child narrator offers readers a unique glimpse into the motivations of survival and also serves as a means to heighten the suspenseful element of the story.
The suspense element of The Bear is derived from Anna’s understanding of the bear attack. Anna does not understand what she is seeing, and in fact creates a version of the events that she can understand. The suspense is created by the reader, as we, unlike the child, can understand exactly what Anna is witnessing:
Stick cries so much. I call Daddy and Momma and my throat feels like the deck at the cottage that gives me splinters in my foot. No one is coming. I don’t like splinters and I don’t want one in my throat. This is bad. This must be how we do time-out when we are camping. It’s not like a normal time-out in Toronto or when I am at the cottage. I don’t sit on a step or on the porch. Here I sit inside Coleman. But I haven’t talked and I stayed still and I was quiet for as long as the time-out and still Daddy won’t let me out. I try to stick my eyes out of Coleman’s mouth but my forehead is still too tall. I see stars and the wind is not breathing. I call Daddy and Momma again and no one. I listen and I can hear other breath, not wind or Stick’s nose. The noises are Snoopy breathing. Mrs. Buchanan has given Snoopy a bone. I am not allowed to but Mrs. Buchanan lets me hold the bone out and Snoopy takes it. He does it gentle with his lips back so that I can see his teeth aren’t going to bite me and he keeps them far away from my hand. When he is done with the bone for his dinner he gives me a wet kiss on the cheek and I smile.
Snoopy is eating the bone and I can hear the snap snap snap of his jaws on the bone. His nose is snuffling because he is a pig when he eats and doesn’t even stop to breath. I am supposed to breath even when I am so so hungry. Snoopy doesn’t stop because he is a dog. His teeth go scrape on the bone and I hear it pop. I think Snoopy has broken the bone and he’s not supposed to do that (p. 18-19).
Anna tries to assimilate what she is hearing with her past experiences, confusing the bear with her neighbour’s dog, who is emphatically not at the camp site. It is painfully obvious to readers that it’s the bear chewing on human flesh that Anna is hearing. The fact that Anna does not understand this is terrifying to the reader. Will Anna rush into danger because she doesn’t understand or on some level does Anna instinctively fear what’s happening outside the cooler where she and Stick have been hidden?
What I liked about the audio version of The Bear is the fact that the narrator used a childlike voice to tell the story. Emphasis was paid to certain words and experiences that seemed so uniquely childlike to me; the narrative flowed effortlessly. Also, having had The Bear read to me, I think I was forced to think of this as a tale told by a child. Had I read The Bear on my own I don’t think I would have given emphasis to certain terms and experiences in a way that would make sense to a child. In fact, had I read The Bear I don’t think I would have actually finished the book since it may have been harder to think of this as a story told by a child. The audio narration of The Bear went a long way to create the atmosphere of the book as well as to heighten the suspense. Audiobook win!
Lastly, I also liked Anna numerous rambles on life. She often jumped from the present to the past, sometimes reflecting on her friend, Jessica, or moments with her parents. In a way, Anna’s ruminations moved away the narrative away from the suspense plot, but they were also more complex than expected. For example, during Anna’s reflections, it becomes clear that this camping trip was very important to her family. Her Momma and Daddy were taking a break, and when her Daddy arrives at the cottage and they go camping it’s a return to family of four. Again, the hints of concepts that Anna doesn’t yet understand just make this all the more of a heartbreaking tale. Here’s a family that’s getting back on track, and then this terrible event happens. It’s all the more sad because the reader is aware that Anna didn’t even understand that her parents’ were having problems to begin with. Anna’s inner world adds a layer of richness that makes this more than a survival story, it’s a story about family and all it’s ups and downs.
The Bear was a great, suspenseful read/listen. I loved the child’s narration and the suspense element. The inner narrative of Anna was unexpectedly rich and complex, taking The Bear beyond it’s initial categorization as a survival story. Looks like this one is going to be my very first audiobook recommendation!
For another Canadian novel that uses a younger narrator, try Susan Swan’s The Western Light. While Mouse is not as young as Anna, I think Mouse captures the experiences of life at a certain age.
For another interesting perspective, Teresa Totem’s The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B is another excellent choice. Here, the narrator is struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder and the author delves into the mind of how an individual would cope with this on a daily basis. It may not be your typical survival story, but it’s survival of a different kind.