After the first 30 pages of All the Broken Things, I knew that I was reading something special. Moving, tragic, and full of impact, Kuitenbrower’s story of 14-year old Bo’s struggle to heal his family and find acceptance was beautiful and heart-breaking. The novel takes place in Toronto in 1983. Despite having lived in Canada for several years now, there are only two things that Bo cares about: fighting, and his little sister Orange. Born severely disfigured as a result of Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant used by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Orange is the family secret who is kept hidden away. Bo’s mother, Rose, is repulsed by Orange. Unable to come to terms with the fact that Orange was born from her body, Rose is depressed, distant, and unable to find any joy in life.
Bo’s life is completely changed when he is discovered by Gerry, a bear trainer who sees a talent and promise in this tough kid that everyone else seems to ignore. Taking Bo under his wing, Gerry introduces him to the world of traveling fairs and bear wrestling. Giving Bo a bear cub of his own to train, Bo finds his world being opened up to new possibilities. Tragedy strikes, however, when Gerry’s boss, Max, begins dating Bo’s mother. Determined to have Orange in his freak show for the CNE, Max will stop at nothing to get his hands on Bo’s sister. When Bo wakes up to discover both his mother and his sister gone, he sets out to find them, with Bear by his side.
While the description above may make All the Broken Things sound strange and outlandish, the story itself is actually quite stunning. My heart immediately went out to Bo from the very beginning, as he struggled to find himself, and come to terms with his mother’s emotional absence and his sister’s disability. Despite the tragic moments of the novel, beauty can be found in Bo’s journey of self-realization. Through his struggles, Bo manages to find his own path in life, and finally sees his family in a whole new light. The sense of community that builds as the story progresses filled me with hope, and allowed me to feel optimistic about Bo and Orange’s future together.
Amongst this magical tale, Kuitenbrower seamlessly weaves together a number of historical facts that both shocked and amazed me. I was horrified to discover that Agent Orange had been produced in Elmira, Ontario for supply to the U.S. military throughout the Vietnam war. Kuitenbrower skillfully brought the horror of this destructive chemical to life through the character of Orange, whose very name (let alone her appearance), is a constant reminder of it’s presence in the background of the story. The novel’s glimpses of life at the CNE and the world of bear wrestling (which wasn’t outlawed until 1976), was also very fascinating, as I always viewed the use of bears for entertainment as something from the 19th century.
Exploring issues of responsibility, acceptance, heroism, and community, All the Broken Things is a masterful piece of writing that will pull at your heart-strings while also filling you with a sense of wonder and awe. This is a great work of Canadian fiction that deserves more buzz and fanfare than it has been getting. With plenty of topics to discuss, All the Broken Things would certainly make a great choice for book clubs! One thing is for sure, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with Bo and Bear, and will find yourself cheering them on until the very end.