With 1983 Toronto as a backdrop, All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is a captivating story of loss, damage and ultimately survival. It’s an unusual story where bear wrestling, freak shows and the aftermath of the Vietnam War intersect.
Bo is a fourteen-year-old boy living in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood with his mother and his four-year-old sister, Orange, who was born with serious birth defects due to Agent Orange. Bo’s family are Vietnamese boat people, and while they escaped to Canada, they are damaged by their experiences and the loss of Bo’s father. When a carnival man approaches Bo about bear wrestling, Bo accepts not only to support his family but also to channel his anger. He quickly realizes that the owner of the freak show has designs on his sister Orange and Bo struggles to protect her.
All the Broken Things is peopled by broken characters. Bo’s mother barely functions as she suffers from the trauma of war and the loss of Bo’s father en route to Canada. Bo, lacking a mother’s nurturing, has to pick up the slack left and help care for his sister. Little Orange is physically broken by the chemicals to which she was exposed in utero. Even the teacher, Miss Lily, is broken, haunted for having worked at the factory that produced Agent Orange in Elmira, Ontario. Amid all this brokenness are beautiful connections between humans and animals alike, not least of which is the unbreakable bond between a boy and his sister. In the end, the book is not about fracture, but rather about healing and survival. It’s a truly unique novel that drew me into its world and held me there to the last page.
Take a minute to watch the wonderful book trailer below by fifteen-year-old Carol Nguyen.