All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
a review by Sarah Maria Medina
I was raised on a riverboat in a household affected by the American War in Vietnam. My mother’s second husband worked as an officer during the war. Though he wasn’t on the battlefield, he returned from the war an alcoholic with a mass of secrets. I knew I needed to visit this country, the one that had such a complicated history with my own.
When I entered university, I studied history in Ha Noi, Viet Nam with a group of students. In southern Vietnam, we visited Tram Chim in the Mekong River Delta. Chemicals and defoliants had devastated the riverbank during the US government’s herbicidal warfare of the 60s and early 70s. The riverbank was dry, not lush like it would have been before Agent Orange and other herbicides destroyed the river.
In All the Broken Things (Penguin Random House Canada), Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer takes us to a similarly destroyed landscape: a boy running through a field, burnt and open, everything exposed like a raw wound. When he returns home, his mother scolds him, terrified that he ran through the burnt field his father describes as “death.” She throws him into a scalding bath, scrubbing him in desperation.
Kuitenbrouwer unwinds the narrative of how a fourteen year old boy named Bo, a Vietnamese refugee, flees Viet Nam by boat. In Canada, Bo and his mother not only confront the host of problems new immigrants face around racism and displacement, but ableism as well. “One of the new words his mum and he had come to understand was monster. And another was pity,” the narrator states early in the novel, introducing us to the terrible theme of “monster” — a word Bo hears when his sister, Orange, comes into public view.
In Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), I went to the War Remnants Museum. Preserved fetuses soaked in formaldehyde floated inside glass jars: their limbs twisted or absent, skulls enlarged, eyes swollen. They were jars of pain and grief, memorials to children that could have run and played in the lush beautiful green countryside. Instead, they were stillborn from US chemical warfare, mouths caught without a breath, lives preserved for our witness. Kuitenbrouwer takes one of those small fetuses in a glass jar and breathes life back into her.
Bo reaches through his sister’s rocking pain, finding beauty in her difference. Early in the narrative, he notes Orange’s beauty, even in her silent frustration, as she pummels her hands to the floor, unable to communicate. Later, he tells her a bedtime story, which speaks to the contradictions of their world: Orange is seen as hideous, but inside their dream world, she is a small queen:
“He said, ‘I am Orange! I am ugly! I wander in the painted forest. So long has passed since the end of the war. The soldiers have all been forgiven! I am a princess now and I was a princess then. I wander in the forest of paint, too, and that day will be glorious. Even ugly things become beautiful.’”
Bo desperately – and, at times, awkwardly – reclaims Orange’s beauty within an ableist world — a world that would rather turn his sister into a spectacle than give her a true voice. He must redefine ugliness and beauty alongside Orange as she matures within the narrative. If he loves his sister, then she is no longer the ugly monster the world claims she is. The layered narrative asks: when will we hear her voice, the silent mouth of her that struggles to speak?
Kuitenbrouwer lets Orange’s anger over the physical pain she was born into—the tightness of her limbs, the way her eyes never close even as she sleeps, the chemical sores on her skin—brim over. She lets Orange dance, laugh, and fight for her right to be seen and heard.
Within the narrative, the more typical problems of a fourteen-year-old boy also surface: school fights and a first crush. But Bo faces more than just a schoolyard brawl. Racism, his mother and sister’s failing health, and their possible homelessness interrupt his youth. Because of this, Bo accepts a stranger’s offer to become a bear fighter. This brings us to the heart of the story: the training of a small wild cub and the travelling carnival, where Bo and Orange navigate a world that turns dis/ability into a freak show, a world that wants to confine and profit from difference.
One night, in Ha Noi, after studying history texts and novels on the American War, I had a dream about a young woman. In a dimly lit bar, she walked toward me with a slight limp from a wooden prosthetic leg. Dressed in a blue lycra unitard, she sat down next to me on a high bar stool and said, “War is something you can never understand, not until you’ve lived it.” Later, I recounted this dream to some friends whose family members had died from illnesses caused by Agent Orange. Their eyes widened. They believed in ghosts and understood my dream as a vision.
It is true. No matter how much you study war, how many visits you might make to war-torn countries that have begun to rebuild themselves, you will never truly understand war unless you’ve been inside of it. That is what makes All the Broken Things so compelling. Kuitenbrouwer doesn’t pretend to understand. Instead, she takes apart the terrible pain of her cast of characters and lets their story shine. She breaks their pain apart, places it into a world full of magic, of carnivals and bear fights. It is a story of survival, of finding a place among all the broken things of this world.