Inspired by an actual black bear attack on campers in Canada’s Algonquin Park northeast of Toronto in 1991, Cameron recreates the experience. The victims are a family of four, the only survivors five-year-old Anna and two-year-old Alex (called Stick by his sister), the pair left to survive in the wilderness. Anna is nearly six, “Stick” nearly three, a detail I found strange, since cognitive development in these early years is so critical, involving both speech and thought processes. Ultimately, much of the communication and the decisions made by Anna in protecting her younger brother are defined by her decisions in the face of fear and isolation.
From the first page, when half-asleep Anna struggles to make sense of the strange noises she hears coming from her parents—sounds so out of the norm that she believes she is dreaming—the tale turns on Anna’s interpretation of events. Thrust into a Coleman cooler by what she sees as an angry (shouting) father along with her squirming, crying brother, Anna views the outside mayhem through the crack of the opening, assailed by noise, smell and impression, unable to understand the gravity of what is happening to her parents.
Surviving the night, Anna emerges to what she describes as a "mess,” the family’s camping supplies scattered about. She associates the ravaging animal with a large neighborhood dog—assuming it is, in fact, a dog, albeit not a friendly one. Discovering her mother barely alive in a bed of greenery, Anna fetches a Band-Aid, listens to whispered directions to get Alex into the canoe and away from the site, to wait for mom and dad. Torn between the need to stay with her mother and to obey instructions, Anna cajoles a now filthy, dirty-diapered Stick into the canoe with a damaged tin of cookies, both children hungry and confused.
That they escape the campsite at all is amazing, given the push/pull of childhood interactions, Anna easily frustrated by the little boy’s demands, screaming tantrums and inability to follow directions. Awash with conflicting emotions, Anna draws from fragments of an ordered family life and the self-preservative instincts of a child formulating her place in the world devoid of the guidance of an adult. Most of her conclusions, while inappropriate, are fortuitous, providing them with food, shelter or rest.
There are moments of savagery between the siblings: Anna’s kicks to keep the smelly, stinky boy away from her (she cannot abide his smell), her resentments of a child who always gets his way turned vicious in moments of panic. These instances are in contrast to others, the pair curled together in the shelter of a tree, whose roots provide a barrier to the nighttime sounds around them, or Anna’s attempts to withdraw a splinter from Stick’s foot as they stumble across unfamiliar terrain, eating berries and drinking from whatever water they come across.
Most significantly, the bear/dog becomes Anna’s familiar, threat and companion, attracted and repulsed by his strength, his lurking image both real and imagined following the children through the wilderness. Doggedly pushing on, Anna converses with the bear in her head, his presence taking root inside her, terror become part of her childhood, her assessment of the world around her. Even after the children are rescued, Anna is held hostage to the usurper that has taken up residence in her mind, unsure if she will ever be safe again. It is a provocative, harrowing tale, more poignant in the limited language of childhood, a Grimm’s fairy tale come unexpectedly to life, two lost children wandering though a foreign landscape, prey to a monster.