This creative but ultimately ineffective novel begins with our narrator, 5 year-old Anna, happily snuggling up in her tent after a day of canoeing with her family to a small, forested island where they’re planning to camp for the weekend. Held tight in one arm is her teddy bear Gwen; tucked in a sleeping bag next to her, her baby brother, 2 year-old Stick, obnoxiously snoring away as usual.
While she dozes off to sleep, Anna can smell bacon frying up and hear her parents laughing and talking in soft voices on the other side of the tent flap. Tempted to pop her head out just to reassure herself everything is as it should be, Anna instead decides to be a “good girl” and stay in bed as told. She cozies up to Gwen, whose smell she finds reassuring, and takes comfort in the fact “we are 4″ (that is, her whole family is there).
Then suddenly the voices change and Anna snaps awake. Her mother seems angry; her father’s tone drops low and quiet and calm. Just as Anna starts to sit up to try to listen more closely, though, her dad comes bursting through the tent flap, looking furious (she thinks). He grabs her and Stick, races outside, throws them both into the family’s oversized Coleman cooler, jams a rock into the corner of the lid to keep it propped open slightly for air — and then turns the latch to lock them in, hissing at them to STAY THERE.
Convinced they’re being punished, though what for, they have no idea, Anna and Stick lie quietly in the cooler for a while — a familiar place from their hours of playing hide-and-seek in it at home and so not immediately alarming to either of them.
But as time passes and she ceases being able to hear her parents, this lengthy time-out starts to seem unfair. Plus, they’re only 2, and Anna wants to be 4 again (this number thing recurs throughout the novel and was, I thought, an adept way to show Anna’s anxiety about being separated from her family). Then Stick poops his pants — argh! The stench is overwhelming and Anna wants OUT, so she calls to her parents at last, attracting instead the attention of what appears to her to be a big black dog. The dog begins sniffing and pawing at the cooler, finally knocking it around so much the latch breaks (luckily, he doesn’t notice and instead goes back to smacking and crunching on what sounds to Anna like a meaty bone — it’s the same sound she’s heard when her neighbor’s dog Snoopy has scored a tasty post-dinner chicken leg, so she assumes her parents like the dog and have given him a treat).
Eventually, Anna hears the dog leave, and she opens the lid to get out with her brother.
. . . And thus begins the story of a 5 year-old girl whose parents have just been killed (and eaten, ugh) by a bear and who is now alone in the woods with a 2 year-old and no comprehension whatsoever of what’s just happened or what might be coming next.
In theory, this is a truly incredible novel. Anna’s narration is a fascinating mix of childish stream of consciousness and observation, giving us a close look at how a 5 year-old perceives the world. The beginning of the novel and the end are the strongest, as we watch Anna struggle first with trying to figure out what’s going on and later with the confusing nature of her own emotional responses.
The problem with having a 5 year-old as your narrator, though, reveals itself once you get past the initial fascination with the idea of having a 5 year-old as your narrator. There’s a reason why 5 year-olds aren’t more widely published, after all, and that reason is that they aren’t terribly proficient writers. As an experiment, The Bear is intriguing and unique. As a novel, on the other hand, it’s easily four times too long. This story would’ve been far more effectively told in a much shorter format — a novella or even a short story could’ve made it a piece of absolute genius. Instead, the end result is weakened tremendously by the need to fill so many pages with the observations of a child who doesn’t really have anything to do or say. Ever spend a lot of time with a bored kid? It’s not usually when they’re at their most entertaining, know what I mean?
Though the end of the book is strong and moving, so much slogging through tedium was required to get there, any power it might have had was almost completely sapped by my increasing impatience overall. If you’re looking for a good suspenseful story about two children who survive a bear attack, in other words, this is not the book for you. I feel like I read somewhere recently that there’s a plan to adapt this story for a film, though, and if that happens, I’d definitely be interested in seeing it — at its heart, this really is a very good story. But it’s definitely the rare occasion where a novel that has a unique narrator, told primarily through that narrator’s thoughts, would actually make for a far stronger movie than book.
Despite my disappointment and frustration, I do think there’s some value to picking this one up; if you’re interested in the study of writing, for example, you’ll find a lot to chew on here (pun intended, sorry). My advice? Read the first and last 50 pages for the sake of the experiment, and save yourself 150 pages of Stick annoying his big sister by pooping all over the place. After all, if you have children, you probably get quite enough of that at home already.