All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

There is Bo. Bo and Peter and Ernie.  Bo and Teacher. Rose and Bo. Bo and Orange. Gerry and Bo.  Lorelei and Bo.  Max and Gerry. Bo and Bear. Max and Rose. Max and Thao. Rose and Bo. Max and Orange. Gerry and Lorelie.  Soldier Man.  Bo and Bear and Soldier Man.  Emily. Bo. Orange.

All the Broken ThingsAll the Broken Things.

This book had a very powerful effect on me for a number of reasons. Initially, it was the character of Bo and his relationship with Bear. “Bo is fourteen years old and the bear not a year.” But even before this I was intrigued by the Author’s Note, part of which follows:

“The strangest of the truths in this novel are the facts of a bear wrestling circuit in Ontario, the production of Agent Orange in the small town of Elmira, Ontario, and freak shows at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE).

Ontario outlawed bear wrestling when a bear mauled the trainer’s fiancée to death in 1976. Freak shows were a huge attraction at the CNE, with many freaks making their international debuts in Canada, and only ended in 1979. Agent Orange was produced by Uniroyal (now Chemtura) in Elmira under contract for the U.S. military for the purpose of defoliating the jungles of Vietnam during the war.” …

Chemical manufacturers knew that the dioxin in Agent Orange was both carcinogenic and mutagenic. Some 83 million litres of the poison was dropped onto South Vietnam from 1961 to 1971. The victims of Agent Orange have not been properly acknowledged and the legacy of Agent Orange continues, as the chemical works its way through a third generation of exposed Vietnamese citizens. Canada has never admitted any responsibility for this.”

In my pre-teen years I attended the CNE every year and I do remember the advertising boards for some of the freak shows. I may have been in to see one of the displays but that could be my imagination: I did not recall this until I read the Author’s Note reproduced above.

Just yesterday, I read part of an article in the New Internationalist (NI 481 April 2015) which is a report on Monsanto and other biotech giants. I was struck by the following: “Monsanto’s main rival Dow, created a new herbicide (in response to the crisis in GM agriculture in which thousands of hectares of crops are being damaged by superweeds such as palmer amaranth, marestail and ryegrass) Enlist Duo – a combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D,…the two main chemical ingredients of Agent Orange.”

Inspite of all the negativity and discouragement a reader might absorb from the above information, this book remains an inspiration and a source of hope and I believe that is directly due to the author’s skilled creation and presentation of her characters including the bears and the “freaks” and their keepers/caregivers.

Bo and his  parents left Vietnam by boat but his father was already ill when they left and he died on the journey. Bo’s mother was pregnant. Mother and son eventually arrived in Canada where they were sponsored by a church organization. A small bungalow was provided and Bo’s mother paid rent. She had a small ancestral altar in a corner. The small family worked very hard at being good citizens. They spoke English at home. Rose worked as a cleaner in a hospital.

In the first chapter, as Rose leaves for work, she calls back to Bo: “Check on Sister when you get home.” Sister was Orange and Bo needed no reminder to take care of her.

“Bo’s sister’s name meant Orange Blossom in Vietnamese so he called her Orange. Rose called her Sister. Orange was their family tragedy. The one they mustn’t mention to others. Orange was unspeakable and unspeaking. She could not see very well and was all wrong, every part of her.”

When Bo came home from school, “he found Orange in her bedoom on her mattress, rocking. Her eyes were pushed so far out of their sockets she looked Martian. He might look weird to Orange through her convex eyes, he thought, flattened jout, unreal. He lay on the mattress and curved in toward her. He hoped this made her feel safe. She was four years old.”

This is only one of several beautiful and compassionate relationships in this book. Bo would make a wonderful role model for all of us although he would be the last person to see himself that way.

Just a week or so ago,  another book about Vietnamese immigrants was chosen on Canada Reads 2015 as the best of five presented as a possibility to break barriers about a particular issue. That book was Ru by Kim Thúy: the jacket describes it as “a lullaby for Vietnam and a love letter to a new homeland.” This book tells another version of the Vietnamese immigrant experience in Canada and would make an excellent companion read to Ru. Both have important messages. Have you read another title that would add to the story?

5 thoughts on “All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer”

  1. The recent study assembled by 17 notable oncologists about M*nsanto’s main product (in the article you’ve referenced in New Internationalist) and the link with cancer rates is gaining attention, which is heartening to see. It’s wonderful when novels like this one draw links to current issues; I’m certain many other people also weren’t aware of Canada’s role in Agent Orange and the devastating after effects close-to-home. Fiction is such a powerful agent of change!

  2. Ah, yes….I recall how very much I wanted to learn to make pho and that reminds me how much I would like to reread The Beauty of Humanity Movement. I can see this may turn into a major rereading project…thank you for bringing back a treasured reading experience.

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