By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Category: Literary Fiction
Author: Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
Format: Trade Paperback, 342 pages
Publisher: Random House of Canada
Pub Date: January 14, 2014
Summary from Publisher:
September, 1983. Fourteen-year-old Bo, a boat person from Vietnam, lives in a small house in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto with his mother, Thao, and his four-year-old sister, who was born severely disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange. Named Orange, she is the family secret; Thao keeps her hidden away, and when Bo’s not at school or getting into fights on the street, he cares for her.
One day a carnival worker and bear trainer, Gerry, sees Bo in a street fight, and recruits him for the bear wrestling circuit, eventually giving him his own cub to train. This opens up a new world for Bo–but then Gerry’s boss, Max, begins pursuing Thao with an eye on Orange for his travelling freak show. 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. Awake at night, boy and bear form a unique and powerful bond. When Bo emerges from the park to search for his sister, he discovers a new way of seeing Orange, himself and the world around them.
All the Broken Things is a spellbinding novel, at once melancholy and hopeful, about the peculiarities that divide us and bring us together, and the human capacity for love and acceptance.
– From Chapters-Indigo website
Book Review by Zara from The Bibliotaphe Closet
All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is a devastatingly marvellous book, a story that focuses on the unfortunate sufferings of its main character, 14-year-old Bo, a young refugee from Vietnam who lives with his highly pessimistic mother, Rose, and his violent four-year-old sister who is severely disfigured from the affects of Agent Orange.
While Bo is burdened with school and taking care of his disabled sister, the responsibilities deferred to him by his incompetent and devastated mother, he is also haunted by the defiant memory of the untimely death of his father, and what it means to be a cultural outsider.
Though he does have some people rooting for him, his happiness, and success, in the form of his teacher, Miss Lily, and mature classmate and friend, Emily, the only way he can cope with his turbulent anger and frustration is by fighting with a schoolyard bully named Ernie.
An outlet for his pent-up rage, he fights Ernie on a daily basis until he is discovered and recruited by a carnival worker and bear trainer, Gerry, who not only befriends him, but eventually gives him his own bear cub to raise, who he names, for lack of a better word, Bear.
While he must fend off the interest of carnival owner, Max, from discovering the uniqueness of his sister, Orange, and deter and manage the depression of his mother, Rose, who is unable to hold a job, or look at, or look after the daughter who incites in her the pain of guilt and memory, Bo, takes solace from secretly training and raising Bear in the confines of his small backyard until they both become nomads in the wilderness of High Park.
The magnificent power of the book is in its quality in both plot and characterization. The plot moves readily from scene to scene, revealing the depth of its characters:
Thao Rose suffers a private anguish and shame at birthing a disfigured child, feels helpless and incompetent to care for her, and feels worthless as a refugee who tries to escape the haunt of dark and old memories—the desperate compulsion to flee her home country because of her visions of war and the imposed victimization to the deadly war toxin, Agent Orange.
Orange Blossom suffers a personal and private imprisonment both by the restriction of her physical body, her lack of verbal language, and the constraints imposed on her by her disgusted and ashamed mother who wishes to keep her hidden from the world, to keep her indoors at all times, to keep her a deep and dark secret from outsiders. Orange retaliates through violence, acting out by hitting and pummeling her brother, or throwing herself against walls and doors. She remains muted for most of the novel, a person described as hideous, and yet, most beloved by her brother, Bo.
Bo, the center of the book, is heartachingly good, a young boy who is forced to survive tragedy and left to fend for himself through the confusion of unfortunate and difficult circumstances and events in his life. Though a young boy, he is burdened with responsibility from a place of neglect, a victim of his poverty, as well as his foreignness. Rather than a child who is taken care of, he is a child who must bear the responsibility of money for his family’s livelihood, his mother’s well-being, his sister’s day-to-day needs, and then eventually Bear’s care and training.
While he succumbs to violence to dull his emotional pain, the conflict in the book is thick and raw with misfortune after misfortune, which leads him to a travelling carnival and finally to center ring. He learns quickly how to put his fighting skills into action, unafraid to face Loralei, the fighting bear, an act he also quickly learns to manipulate and manage. While this earns him some money, it also earns him an opportunity to raise his own cub, which becomes a cathartic friendship, bound by trust, as much as it is by contract and elusive tricks.
With a backdrop between a sullen and secretive home, the turbulence and oddity of a freak show in circus, and the dingy freedom of homelessness in High Park, Bo must come to terms with the disappearance of both his mother and his sister as much as the loss of his home, his homeland, and his father, a victim of Agent Orange.
The plot will unravel the cruelty of the world in its ignorance and biases, its opportunistic abuse of those in need, and the surprising outcome of the absurd.
But, the narrative is both realistic as it is personal. The reader will do more than empathize for Bo, Orange, Bear, and their circumstances, but weep for them also. The book is well-paced and will satiate the reader’s interest long enough to have him or her put the book down in order to rest from its emotional intensity.
It cries out injustice as it does education on issues such as the Vietnam war, the production of Agent Orange, and the horrific results of its exposure to victims of war. It also looks at foreignness, oddity, and the fine line between morality and entertainment in spectacle. But, it hones in on the absolute power of love, friendship, and the meaning of family and beauty.
This is an exquisite and tender novel about the need do more than survive, but to be seen and be loved—as Bo, Orange, Thao, Bear, and Gerry are in themselves—imperfect, beautiful, and even broken.
Characters: 5 stars
Pacing: 5 stars
Cover Design: 3.5 stars
Plot: 4.5 stars
A special thanks to Random House of Canada for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
About the Author:
To learn more about Kathryn, you can visit her bio here.
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Have you ever heard of Agent Orange before?
What do you think is the most difficult thing about being a foreigner?
How does society’s view on beauty affect those who are severely disfigured? How can we change this?
Do you agree with carnivals or circuses having “Freak Shows?” Why or why not?
How do you think Bo and Bear are alike?
If you have read, “All Things Are Broken,” what did you enjoy most about the book?