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Toronto Book Awards: All the Broken Things

September 14, 2015

All The Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

Please welcome back our 2015 Toronto Book Awards blogger, Kim MacMullen! Kim will be reading and reviewing the finalists for this year’s Toronto Book Awards, which will be awarded on October 15, 2015.

The next review is All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer (Random House Canada). Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer will be reading at The Word On The Street at Harbourfront Centre on September 27th, at 12:30 PM and again at 4:30 PM at the Toronto Book Awards Tent.

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer opens her novel All the Broken Things with an author’s note laying out several facts upon which the story hinges: bear wrestling existed in Ontario until 1976; the CNE featured a freak show until 1979; and Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant used during the Vietnam War, was manufactured in Elmira, Ontario. Each of these three facts is woven into the fabric of the story of Bo, a boy whose family fled Vietnam for Canada, and while Kuitenbrouwer self-admittedly places each of these points in a setting just outside of their factual place in history, they serve as the perfect backdrop for the exceptional, fantastical, and touching tale of Bo, Bear, and Orange.

In 1983, Bo is fourteen years old and his family is struggling to fit into their new life in Toronto. His father did not survive the journey from Vietnam, and his mother, Thao, is deeply unhappy. Bo cares for and dearly loves his four-year-old sister, Orange, who was born severely disfigured as a result of exposure to Agent Orange and whom Thao keeps hidden in the house out of shame. Bo gets into daily fights with boys at school, drawing the attention of a bear trainer named Gerry, who offers Bo a place in the carnival circuit along with a bear cub (whom Bo names Bear). During his time in the circuit, Bo meets Max, the organizer of the carnival’s freak show, who shows an interest in bring Orange on board as one of his “curiosities.” Bo is horrified, especially when Max becomes entangled in his family’s normally private life, and the story takes some heart-wrenching turns that lead Bo to question everything he thought he knew about his family.

Just as his classmate Emily can’t relate to Bo’s fear of sharks because its (very sad, very real) origin and applicability is so far outside of her realm of experience, modern readers may have trouble comprehending that bear wrestling, freak shows, and deadly chemical manufacture could ever have taken place in Canada, much less in such recent memory. Tough to believe but true, this adds a layer of realism to the story that lets Kuitenbrouwer weave these factual yet slightly surreal details into the magical, myth-like story of Bo and Bear, grounding it whenever it starts to feels a bit too fantastic. The language is warm and often earthy, beautifully reflecting its ursine co-star, and Bo’s growth and the evolution of his relationship with Orange are a touching reminder of the value of truly listening to the people you think you know best—they may be trying to tell you something, and if you aren’t paying attention, even out of love, you might miss it.


Kim MacMullen is a copywriter from Barrie, ON. She has a degree in English Literature from Laurentian University, and, after spending two years in Toronto, she now lives in Barrie with her husband and their substantial collections of books, sports memorabilia, and video games.


For which work did Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer win the Danuta Gleed Award? Check out our website, and send the answer to to be entered in a draw to win a prize pack of all the shortlisted Toronto Book Awards books, signed by the authors!

Keep an eye out for the rest of the Toronto Book Awards reviews, and more chances to enter!

Contest closes September 23, 2015.