Reading (and Writing) Through Fear

Claire Cameron - photo by Nancy Friedland

Claire Cameron, photo by Nancy Friedland

In 1991, at Algonquin Park in Ontario, a couple camping overnight were attacked and partially eaten by a black bear. The incident was so unusual, so disturbing, that it captivated local attention. It also captured the imagination of Claire Cameron, who was working as a canoe guide in the park that year. 

The BearThat event inspired The Bear, Cameron’s second novel, in which she imagines what took place in those horrific moments and afterward. In her fictional version, she adds a twist: two children. At the start of the story, the kids’ panicked father yanks 5-year-old Anna and her 2-year-old brother, Alex, from their tent and stuffs them into a cooler, from which vantage point they witness the carnage, and from which they later escape, following their dying mother’s instructions to climb into their canoe and paddle to safety across the nearby lake. The whole thing is narrated by the 5-year-old.

I did not want to read this book. I mean, I kind of did. But I didn’t.

Maybe motherhood has softened me – I don’t know. In recent years I find that I just can’t stand to read about children going through emotional trauma. Was I curious whether Cameron could tell this story believably in a child’s voice? Sure. But if she really pulled it off… Good lord. How upsetting it must be. Do I want to read a book that’s going to get me all distraught?

I had a hunch she would pull it off, too. When Cameron started writing The Bear, her own child was 5 years old. She was immersed in the language and reasoning of 5-year-olds. So she knew firsthand how children at that age constantly attempt to understand the why of everything. They put building blocks of experience on top of one another to try to find links of causation, and they begin to grasp that their behavior has consequences. (Steal a cookie, and I get sent to bed early.) They don’t, however, yet understand the limits of their own influence. To a 5-year-old, this kind of thinking makes perfect sense: If getting mad and pushing my brother can set off a chain of events (brother falls and gets a bruise, mama fusses at us, daddy puts me in time-out), then other things that happen are probably caused by my actions, too. (Did my grandmother get sick and go to the hospital because I didn’t eat my dinner? If I eat it now, will she get better?)

It’s sad enough to witness the failure of magical thinking and the loss of innocence in real life. (One of the ways motherhood breaks your heart, I think.) So why would I want to relive it in fictional circumstances that are sadder than sad? But there the book was, sitting on my desk, waiting to be read. So I wrote to Cameron and ‘fessed up: I don’t know if I can do this — can you help me muster the cojones to read your book? She wrote back:

Before I had kids, I wasn’t scared of anything. I climbed mountains, paddled rivers and drove across the country in a van by myself. Close to invincible, right? Then my sons were born. The first time a babysitter came over to look after my six-month old, I stood outside the front door and could barely make myself walk away. It was, I realized, a new kind of fear. It’s one that comes alongside loving someone else completely, be it a child, partner, lover or friend. The world is big. It can be scary. And I couldn’t protect the people I love at every given moment.

While I was working on the first draft of The Bear, I thought I was writing about that — the fear of not being able to protect my children from everything. After I finished, I talked to a friend about the story. Knowing me well, she said that I was actually writing about my fear of not being a parent. What if something happened to me and I wasn’t there for them? The minute she said it, I knew she was right. My own father died when I was young, and it is understandably something that I fear. A layer lifted. I was closer to understanding his experience — I hope — of how it must have felt for him to leave children behind.

To me, The Bear is a novel about coming through tragic events. As Anna says, “If you go past the things that are hard you can be very very strong.” Loving another person has to also be about letting them go. I still worry, but I’ve made remarkable improvement in one area: When the babysitter comes over, I’m out the door so fast she can barely see the blur.

Last summer I took my family on a canoe trip to the island in Algonquin Park where the bear attack that I re-imagined in The Bear took place. The first night we were back home, I tucked my son into bed and asked him if he felt safer in his bed, rather than sleeping in a tent. He said no, it’s scarier at home. Why? Because when camping we were all together in the same tent, but in our house we sleep in different rooms so his Dad and I are farther away. Feeling scared is different for everyone.

OK. Time to stop being a scaredy-cat. I read it.

It was indeed gut-wrenching to read Anna saying to herself, “I can make it better if I am a super good girl.” It did hurt a little to witness that magical thinking, the desperate attempts to be good enough to undo bad things. I did want to protect this little fictional child, who was completely out of my reach.

But I didn’t count on Cameron rendering so accurately the other aspects of 5-year-old thinking. There is beauty in the way children blend reality with pretend as they process the world around them. (“I am the queen of the land and no one else can be,” says the girl, as she marches, lost, through the woods.) There’s humor, too. Little kids are hilarious by nature, doubly so when there are two together. So there’s a surprising amount of light amid the dark.

I ended up reading The Bear in one sitting. Some of it was tough emotional territory, but all of it was magnificently authentic. I’ve got to hand it to Claire Cameron: She nailed it.

Mary Laura Philpott
Editor of Musing

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RoomPS: When I told the gang at Parnassus what I was reading for this piece, everyone insisted I simply HAD to read Room by Emma Donoghue as well. Mary Grey even said, “It completely changed the way I thought about motherhood.” I had avoided reading it when it came out in 2010, because… well, it’s a story told by a child who’s held captive with his mother in a tiny room. I didn’t want to be depressed. But for the sake of experimentation, I picked it up this time. They were right. It’s good — surprisingly uplifting, actually. I should have read it years ago. Thanks, everybody, for making me read through the fear.

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C’mon, be brave.