In 1983, in Toronto, Bo lives with his mother and his sister. He is fourteen. The family are Vietnamese refugees. His sister is now four and so severely disfigured and grotesque from the effects of Agent Orange that her mother, Rose, will never allow her outside. She is the family shame, the family secret.
Bo’s father died on the trip to Canada, and while his mother works, they are constantly short of money. Bo’s street fighting catches the eye of a carnival worker and bear trainer, who recruits Bo for the bear wrestling circuit. At the end of the season, Gerry gives Bo his own bear to train.
Training Bear is the joy of Bo’s short and miserable life. His mother loses her job, is drunk half the time, treats her daughter, Orange, roughly and cares little for Bo. He is pretty much on his own, and he realizes that Max, the owner of the circus, wants Orange to be part of his travelling freak show.
This is the heartbreaking story of one boy’s journey to manhood. There seems to be only one way things are going to end and it will not be what Bo wants. His sister is a human being, but Bo seems to be the only one to see her this way, and once his mother and sister are gone with the circus, he is utterly alone. He and Bear travel in the dark streets to get to High Park, where he plans to hide out and continue his life with Bear.
This novel discusses the bear wrestling circuit active in Ontario until the late 1970s, the CNE freak shows at this same time, and the fact that Agent Orange – used by the US Army to defoliate and actively conduct chemical warfare during the Vietnam, was produced in Elmira Ontario. With that said, these are not the saddest things in the book!
How is it that when Bo is abandoned by his mother he goes completely unnoticed for weeks? Why is the only person he encounters while living in High Park a homeless, flash-back prone Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD?
There is Bo’s love for his sister and hers for him, plus their mutual love for Bear, both of which kept me going during this bleak read. There is also a gentle, heartwarming twist at the end, so don’t despair and give up early. It is well written, with extremely well defined characters, but just very sad.