Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer prefaces her third novel by noting that some of its more putatively dubious plot points are in fact true. Namely, until the late 1970s, Ontario had a bear-wrestling circuit, the Canadian National Exhibition featured freak shows, and Agent Orange – used by the U.S. Army to conduct chemical warfare during the Vietnam War – was produced in Elmira, Ontario.
Yet in some ways these are the least difficult things to believe in this tale about a 14-year-old Vietnamese boy, Bo, who comes to Toronto as a refugee. One stumbling block is the idea that Bo could manage to go unnoticed while living for weeks with a bear in Toronto’s High Park. Another is that the sole person he encounters during that time is a homeless, flashback-prone Vietnam vet.
The story begins when Bo is spotted scrapping in the streets by a carnie named Gerry, who believes Bo has potential as a bear wrestler. Bo proves such a natural he’s given his own cub to train at home.
Bo also has a sister, Orange, who’s severely disfigured from exposure to Agent Orange. (We’re told her Vietnamese name means “Orange Blossom,” so are we to take the connection to the deadly chemical agent as a simple coincidence?) Gerry’s bowler-hatted boss, Max, offers to pay to use Orange in his freak show, but Bo refuses, so Max begins preying on Bo’s lonely, widowed mother. When Bo returns home one day to find the house empty, he embarks on his weeks-long exile in High Park. Bo’s protracted disappearance apparently fails to elicit any action from his teacher, who had been deeply involved in the family’s daily life up to that point.
Eventually, Bo rejoins the carnival circuit in the hope of finding Orange and other hard-to-fathom moments follow, including news of a personal tragedy that Gerry delivers in a bizarrely offhand way, and Bo’s equally strange and understated reaction. Kuitenbrouwer, who writes lucidly, seems to agree with Mark Twain that truth is stranger than fiction, yet she disregards the second part of his famous quote – “because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities” – with unfortunate results.