For all their naïveté, children have an extraordinary capacity to enlighten even the most cynical, world-weary adults. At least half the videos on Upworthy, it seems, feature youngsters challenging conventional thinking on topics ranging from gay marriage to eating meat. Due to their still-developing brains, kids tend to make elemental, unfiltered observations, but they also have difficulty gauging the seriousness of certain situations—all of which makes them fascinating storytellers.
Claire Cameron uses a child narrator to good effect in her buzzed-about new novel, The Bear, a cautionary wilderness tale told by a five-year-old named Anna Whyte. During a family camping trip in Algonquin Park in 1991, Anna’s parents are attacked by a black bear, and the plot revolves around the young girl’s heroic efforts to hide and protect her three-year-old brother, Alex, from the ursine stalker until they can be rescued.
Told in the rambling, unself-conscious prose of a kindergartner, The Bear shows how a child’s viewpoint can make a horrifying episode even more visceral. The attack occurs within 30 pages, but when Anna first emerges from her tent, she’s puzzled. Any adult would immediately grasp the severity of the situation, but she’s too green to recognize what the bear—or “the black dog,” as she refers to it—has wrought.
“I don’t like this meat that the black dog left all over the ground. It doesn’t have a hoof on it either and instead it has Daddy’s shoe and I don’t know why he would have stuck his shoe on the meat,” she says, less concerned than confounded.
A major milestone of youth is discovering that the world is in fact a vicious, dangerous place, and following a narrator who has not yet come to that realization can be staggering. Many such novels put the reader in the unsettling position of knowing more about what’s going on than the storyteller, which inevitably amplifies the dread about what is to come.
A great example is Emma Donoghue’s harrowing 2010 novel, Room, in which a woman is held prisoner for years by a man known as “Old Nick.” The book is narrated by her five-year-old son, Jack, who was born in captivity and has only ever known “Room,” the container-like dwelling where he and his mom live. An unflappably cheery lad despite the circumstances, Jack describes their routine and includes this casually chilling description of his mother’s ritual rape: “When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight’s 127 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops. I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t count, because I always do.” Jack’s innocence makes the proceedings more heartrending.
Adopting a child’s perspective allows a novelist to take leave of grown-up reason and tap into a less logical, more playful view of the world. Children have lively minds, but they often have trouble focusing. Anyone who has ever listened to a kid tell a story will know that they not only take a relaxed approach to chronology, but that they’re prone to long digressions. In literature, this can sometimes be off-putting. Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, has a heavy story to tell: He lost his father in the 9/11 attacks. A child hero is a fine way to personalize a world-changing event. Unfortunately, Foer’s narrative is overwhelmed by Oskar’s florid descriptions of his myriad hobbies (including butterflies, Shakespeare, and jewelry), to the point where it becomes distracting.
There were times when I felt a similar irritation with The Bear. While the reader tries to follow the white-knuckle plot, Anna lapses into a nostalgic reverie about Snoopy, their neighbour’s dog. Anna’s lengthy asides caused me to grumble on more than one occasion—that’s great, kid, BUT CAN WE PLEASE RETURN TO THE MARAUDING BEAR?!?—until I realized it was a clever narrative device. By postponing the action, Cameron actually heightens the drama.
As narrators, children are often gentle guides, but they’re not as clueless as you think. In literature, as in life, you underestimate them at your peril.