At first glance, the story of Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s All the Broken Things appears almost whimsical — a young boy joins the circus to wrestle with bears. Even the book trailer gives the impression of a fantastical adventure… lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Yet the story itself engages with much more sobering subject matter than that. The book is about Bo, a fourteen year old Vietnamese refugee living in Toronto in 1983. His race makes him an outcast — his best friend and neighbour turns into a purported enemy past a certain intersection in the city. His well-meaning teacher only ends up highlighting his difference by asking him to share with the class his experiences of escaping Vietnam on a boat. Perhaps most troubling of all, his younger sister Orange is physically deformed because of Agent Orange, and rather than help Bo and his sister live with this reality, their mother instead opts to hide the young girl from the world. For Bo, full of frustration and bitterness, getting into fights with the school bully turns into an almost comfortable daily routine, part and parcel of his route home from school.
There’s a lot going on in the story, and when Bo stumbles upon the opportunity to fight bears in a circus, it is easy to see why this would provide a welcome sense of direction and purpose. He’s a young boy forced all too soon into an adult world, and readers will want him to succeed. I love the descriptions of his fights with Bear, the overwhelming assault on the senses and the feeling of utter right-ness within the physicality of motion. I love the small romantic subplot as well, and how Bo’s crush is lovely not just because of physical beauty, but also because she’s practically the only character who makes a conscious effort to connect with Orange, even to a greater extent than Bo himself.
Orange is perhaps the hardest character to read about — not because of any failing on the part of the author, but rather because it’s horrifying to think of a child who has been disabled, disfigured and treated as a freak from birth because of warfare tactics far beyond even the child’s parents’ understanding. Her struggle to communicate with others is heart-rending, and when the circus owner wants to add her to his group of freaks, I was right there with Bo in his rage.
The author does a great job detailing Bo’s emotional struggles, from the simmering humiliation of being called in class to talk about his family’s escape from Vietnam, to the explosive rage that causes him to do something he later regrets, and every now and then, to the utter joy when fighting Bear. Best of all is that there aren’t really any villains in this story — even the school bully and the circus owner reveal their humanity at certain points. It feels odd to say that a story about a bear in a circus feels very real, but the characters make this so. Broken Things is a striking story about the need for belonging, and how it can take something as unusual as a bear in a circus to make one belong.
Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.