Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer prefaces her third novel by pointing out that some of its more dubious plot points are in fact true; namely, that until the late ‘70s Ontario had a bear wrestling circuit, the Canadian National Exhibition had freak shows and the chemical Agent Orange—used by the U.S. Army to conduct herbicidal warfare during the Vietnam War—was produced in Elmira, Ontario.
Yet in some ways these are the least difficult things to believe in this 1983-set tale about a 14-year-old Vietnamese boy, Bo, who comes to Toronto as a refugee during the war. One is that Bo would manage to go unnoticed while living for weeks in Toronto’s High Park with a bear (one he instinctively knows how to train to carnival-level standards). Another is that the sole person he would encounter during that time would be a homeless, flashback-prone Vietnam vet.
Bo’s journey begins when he’s spotted scrapping in the streets by a carnie named Gerry. Gerry, who calls Bo “kid,” believes he has potential as a bear wrestler. And indeed, Bo proves such a natural that he’s given his own cub, Bear, to train at home.
Bo also has a sister, Orange, who’s severely disfigured from Agent Orange exposure. When Gerry’s bowler-hatted boss, Max, discovers this he offers to pay Bo to use her in his freak show. (We’re told Orange’s name in Vietnamese is “Orange Blossom,” so are we to take the Agent Orange connection as a coincidence? If not, who would name their child after the chemical that disfigured them?) But Bo refuses, so Max begins preying on Bo’s lonely, widowed mother as a means to get to her. Bo’s weeks-long exile to High Park begins the day he comes home from school and finds an empty house.
Eventually, Bo rejoins the carnival circuit in the hopes of finding Orange, and other hard-to-fathom moments follow, including news of a personal tragedy delivered in a bizarrely offhand way by Gerry and Bo’s equally strange and understated reaction to it. Bo’s protracted disappearance seemingly fails to elicit any action from his teacher, who had been deeply involved in their daily lives until that point.
Kuitenbrouwer, who often writes lucidly, seems to agree with Mark Twain that truth is stranger than fiction, yet she disregards the second clause of his famous quote—“…because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities”—at her own peril.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance reviewer and editor