The year is 1983, and this is a story of Bo, a fourteen-year-old refugee from Vietnam, who lives in Toronto with his mother Rose, and his four-year-old sister Orange. Bo’s sister is a family secret, hidden away from the rest of the world because she was born severely disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange (a herbicide and defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War).
When Bo isn’t daydreaming in school or getting into fights with the neighbourhood boys, he helps take care of Orange, while his mom works her shift at the hospital. His father fell ill and passed away only three days into their sea voyage to Toronto. Bo still has uneasiness about that time but there isn’t an outlet for him to talk to anyone about it.
“And now they’ve lived here for years, and it was like a dream where some things were real but you were never sure.”
The family feels indebted to the people at the church who helped facilitate their journey from Vietnam to Toronto, and provided them an opportunity to settle down in a new country. Bo has a special fondness for Teacher who gives him Adidas shoes, although he admits, “which in spite of being the height of fashion, did not improve his social standing”.
Bo, struggles with his identity and it’s understandable why he gets into into fights with other boys who tease him.
“Sometimes when he looked at himself in a mirror he wondered why every kid in school knew he was abnormal. He looked so normal to the naked eye.”
One day a carnival worker and bear trainer, Gerry, sees Bo in a streetfight, and recruits him for the bear wrestling circuit, eventually giving him his own cub to train. Bo fondly calls this cub Bear and the opportunity opens an exhilarating new world for him: the ridicule inflicted by his classmates dissipates and his mom’s sadness begins to feel less harsh.
But then, Gerry’s boss, Max comes into the picture and seems to have a special interest in Orange for his travelling freak show. Bo’s protective instincts shift into gear, but things become complicated as Max starts to pursue his mother. When Bo wakes up one night to find the house empty, he knows he and his cub, Bear, are truly alone. Together they set off on an extraordinary journey through the streets of Toronto and High Park.
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer powerfully combines enchantment, wonder, reality and melancholy in this beautiful spellbinding story of Bo and Bear.