Toronto cir­cus story any­thing but bro­ken

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Bev Sandell Green­berg

through the ’70s and ’80s has left so many of its in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters on the out­side look­ing in. At their best, Maupin’s nov­els hook the reader into los­ing track of time; many fin­ish one of his books in a sin­gle sit­ting. This vol­ume oc­ca­sion­ally re­cap­tures this for­mer magic. And while Maupin has wisely re­turned to multi-char­ac­ter plot­lines, not all of them are that com­pelling. When Brian and his new girl­friend Wren are on the road with Anna, the for­mer land­lady com­pares her life’s jour­ney to that of a monarch but­ter­fly. Monar­chs mi­grate like birds, she says, but when the jour­ney proves too long, their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren make it for them. “Some­how they know ex­actly where to go and specif­i­cally how to land... The new gen­er­a­tion win­ters in the same tree ev­ery year with­out hav­ing seen the tree,” she con­cludes. That’s an ideal sum­mary of Maupin’s utopian cast of char­ac­ters and of Madri­gal’s ex­pec­ta­tions of her “fam­ily” once she is gone. Long­time fans of the se­ries will de­vour this book, hav­ing waited nearly two decades to find out how things turned out for their favourite char­ac­ters. For the most part, they will be re­warded. New read­ers would be ad­vised to start with the first

when Maupin’s breezy prose was at its best. Greg Klassen is a Win­nipeg pub­li­cist, mar­keter and writer. If he could time-travel, Greg would love to live in San Fran­cisco

dur­ing the late 1970s.

ATALE of loss, dis­place­ment and re­siliency, Kathryn Kuiten­brouwer’s ab­sorb­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing third novel tells the tale of a Viet­namese teenage boy, his pro­foundly dis­abled sis­ter and a per­form­ing bear. Also in­ter­wo­ven into the story are a few lesser-known facts about On­tario’s past. In the 1960s, a chem­i­cal fac­tory in the town of Elmira pro­duced Agent Or­ange un­der con­tract with the U.S. mil­i­tary; from 1961 to 1971, the toxic her­bi­cide was dropped on South Viet­nam to de­fo­li­ate jun­gles dur­ing the war. As well, a bear­wrestling cir­cuit once ex­isted in On­tario, as did freak shows at the Cana­dian Na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion in Toronto. These events were fi­nally banned in the 1970s. Kuiten­brouwer is a Toronto writer. Her 2003 short-story col­lec­tion Way Up was short­listed for the Danuta Gleed Award. Her first novel, The Net­tle Spin­ner, a folk tale-like story about a tree planter, was nom­i­nated for the 2004 Books in Canada First Novel Award. This is her fourth book. Though All the Bro­ken Things also con­tains a fairy tale, the novel marks a de­par­ture for Kuiten­brouwer. For the first time, she writes about a teenage pro­tag­o­nist in a large ur­ban set­ting. The story takes place in the Junc­tion area of Toronto in 1983-1984. The pro­tag­o­nist, Bo, is a 14-year-old boat per­son who came from Viet­nam four years be­fore with his mother, Rose, a preg­nant widow. Bo’s four-year-old sis­ter, Or­ange, has ge­netic de­fects caused by her par­ents’ ex­po­sure to Agent Or­ange. She can’t walk or talk and is hideously de­formed. Rose con­sid­ers her daugh­ter a shame­ful fam­ily se­cret. One day, a man watches Bo win a school­yard fight and of­fers him work as a bear wrestler at a car­ni­val. He is then given a cub to train at home for fu­ture shows. Things go well at first, un­til his boss de­vel­ops a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship with Rose and wants to fea­ture Or­ange in his freak show at the Cana­dian Na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion. Soon af­ter, Bo comes home and finds his house de­serted. He then takes to the streets with his pet bear to try to find Or­ange and save her. The lin­ear nar­ra­tive is writ­ten from Bo’s point of view in spare, cin­e­matic prose. “Bo and Rose sat at the ta­ble and ate. She smelled of le­mon floor wax and an­ti­sep­tic and gin,” Kuiten­brouwer writ­ers. “Al­ways be­tween them there were ques­tions but never were these ques­tions asked. For Bo it was as if the air thick­ened in the space be­tween his thought and his voice. He could not ask about his father; he could not ask about the fam­ily they’d left be­hind.” The well-cho­sen ti­tle refers to the “bro­ken” lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion about prob­lems that re­main off-lim­its be­tween Bo and his mother: Rose’s al­co­holism, her at­ti­tude to­wards Or­ange, Bo’s frag­mented child­hood mem­o­ries, and his re­luc­tance to dis­cuss his bul­ly­ing at school. Through­out the novel, Kuiten­brouwer tack­les a num­ber of sig­nif­i­cant so­cial is­sues, in­clud­ing ex­ploita­tion of an­i­mals, men­tal health among refugees, school bul­ly­ing and treat­ment of the dis­abled. One of the most touch­ing scenes in the novel in­volves Or­ange’s first time at a pool and the sense of joy she ex­pe­ri­ences. The well-rounded se­condary char­ac­ters con­trib­ute a lot to the story. Among them are the teacher who gen­tly in­ter­venes on Bo’s be­half, Bo’s friend Emily and a home­less man in High Park. Much to her credit, Kuiten­brouwer re­sists the temp­ta­tion to sen­ti­men­tal­ize their por­trayal. This un­usual story is a com­pas­sion­ate page-turner that will ap­peal to read­ers of var­i­ous ages and back­grounds. Bev Sandell Green­berg is a Win­nipeg writer

and ed­i­tor.

PAULA FROKE / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

All the Bro­ken Things

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