Book Review: Emory’s Gift

I am not one to toss around the words “favorite” or “best” lightly or often, so when I say that W. Bruce Cameron’s novel Emory’s Gift is my favorite novel, I mean it quite sincerely.

It is TRULY the best novel I have ever read. Never before have I laughed out loud reading a book, turned away from others lest they see my tears, or just cried boldly on a plane because I no longer cared if anyone saw my tears. I have read lines to strangers who had no idea what I was trying to express because they lacked the context, but I didn’t really care, because I just couldn’t keep that line or paragraph to myself. Cameron’s writing style and insight into the mind of a young boy is truly amazing, insightful, and downright hysterical at times.

Truly, I am Charlie Hall, the main character – a middle schooler, around whom the book revolves. And I miss him now like I lost a childhood friend I’ll never get to see again. So real did the author make him, and so vivid did he paint his memories, his experiences, his deep loves, such as Kate, a teacher he was convinced returned his love. (What boy hasn’t fallen head over heels for a teacher and pretended in his mind that it was mutual, even while he knew he was only kidding himself?) But eventually he found “true love” in Beth, a girl much closer to his age, who both befuddled and enchanted him with her spunk and charm.

Indeed, Cameron has written one of those rare novels where the greatest agony is not that the bear aspect of the story may or not be true, but rather the agony that Charlie Hall isn’t real. In the end, he hints at a conclusion the reader is perhaps to come to without directly telling it to him. It’s genius. I’ve never read a novel twice, but I will put this away only long enough to forget the details so that I can relive it. It might take several years, though, since I remember it as though I lived it. But when the time comes, I will journey with Charlie Hall again down memory lane.

Charlie is a boy who lost his mother to cancer and lives in a home with a nearly silent father who, while not a bad father, is withdrawn and dealing with his own grief while leaving Charlie to cope in his own way. An encounter with a wild grizzly bear in the woods that ends up becoming his best friend becomes central to the story – especially when the bear turns out to be perhaps more than just any bear. But I don’t want to include any spoilers, so I’ll leave the mystery of “Emory’s Gift” to those who are lucky enough to pick up a copy of the book.

Part of my connection to the book is that, like Charlie, I also lost my mother to cancer in 1996. It was also slow and painful. While I was a young adult at the time, my much younger brother was Charlie’s age, and he was still at home with an agonizing father. I saw a lot of my dad and brother in this story and in their journey toward moving on without the most loving mother this world has ever known. I am giving a copy of the book to my brother, an MLB reporter and writer who I think will greatly appreciate Cameron’s gift for storytelling. I believe it might bring some healing to his heart regarding the loss of his mom at that tender age and perhaps help him understand his dad a little better, who is now remarried and happy again. This book helped me heal some too.

I may have read somewhere that this is a book for children; however, I certainly would not recommend it for kids.* I do recommend it for the child in each of us, especially for grown men who remember the struggles of transitioning from childhood to manhood and the awkward inner (and literal!) battles they caused. Charlie’s former best friend Dan becomes a bit of an ‘enemy,’ even culminating in a classic school fight that is described both with heart and humor. It is certain to bring back many memories for men who faced the same coming of age battles in their younger years.

But it was the story of the bear that drew me to the book initially, for I encountered a bear at the age of ten, as well.

My First Yosemite Black Bear as an Adult, 2008

I was camping in Yosemite National Park at the time. I love to sleep outside, and since my nylon sleeping bag kept slipping off the plastic folding cot in the night and I’d awake in the dirt, one night my dad devised a plan to bungee cord my sleeping bag to the cot. I awoke in the middle of the night to gentle nudging in my side. Thinking someone was trying to awaken me, I peeked and discovered a large black bear sniffing me! Terrified, I only stared at my “Emory,” wondering if I was a midnight snack. Unable to speak or move, I just froze and watched (and felt) as he continued to sniff me, gently nudging into me. I remembered Forest Ranger Nina (my Kate of the week) telling us that bears never attacked campers, but that they had mauled people just trying to get food. With that thought came the realization that I had some jolly ranchers in my pocket.

The bear’s nose went under my cot, and as its massive head vanished, so did my hope of survival. I figured my final memory would be the shadow of its body without the head, when suddenly the bear lurched up, flipping my cot. At that point I figured it was “flip and slash” so I broke my silence and screamed like a girl. No offense to girls, I mean it actually as a compliment! (Did I mention I was bungee corded to the cot?) As I landed face down in the dirt, the cot on my back, my dad came out of the Winnebago Camper to save some screaming girl and saw the bear lumbering back into the woods, jolly-rancher-less, and discovered the screaming girl was actually his ten-year-old son.

Like a grown Charlie Hall, I have become a bear hunter in Yosemite ever since. You can read of my first bear discovery here: A Prayer BEARly Answered (Bear pictured above.)

The Black Bear I spotted last year, 2011

There are only 400 bears in Yosemite and over 5 million visitors annually, and every year God has blessed me with a bear sighting and the opportunity to photograph them. I have a series of photos now. I wonder, like grown Charlie Hall, if one of them is “my bear.” Of course, thirty years later, they can’t be…but its fun to wonder.

The Black Bear I spotted in 2010

So you can imagine the special connection I had to Charlie Hall reading Cameron’s novel.

Yosemite Black Bear from 2009

I hope Emory’s Gift causes many to pause and consider ‘mystery’ (for the book allows for mystery) and that the message that the book delivers (that I’m keeping from you to not spoil it) will open hearts to God. For parents, I hope that it will help them to connect better with their kids in difficult times, and  for others, that it will encourage them to seize life and not allow hurt and pain to hold them back from enjoying what is next in life, to not let their Beth get away, because there may not be a second chance for everyone. (slight spoiler, but it ends well!)


The author mailed me a stack of hard cover copies to sponsor my podcast where I talk about the book, and I’ll be giving several copies away there, but I’ll give away a THREE FREE COPIES here on my blog as well! All you have to do is COMMENT ON THIS REVIEW and tell me a story about YOU and an ANIMAL. I will choose three people at random and contact you for your address!

It doesn’t have to be as dangerous or exciting as mine – you fed your cat this morning is fine! Just tell me a true animal story and you will be entered to win!

I HIGHLY RECOMMEND that you pick up a copy of Emory’s Gift as a gift for someone you love, especially men, for birthdays, Christmas and this upcoming Father’s Day! They will thoroughly enjoy it!

*Why don’t I recommend the book for children? While I found nothing offensive in the book at all, as an adult, it is a book that reflects on life as a young boy becoming a man. Therefore, there are a few references to girls and women in that context from the perspective of a grown man reflecting back on his discovery of girls, their development, the beauty of women, and relating to both. There is one mild reference to sex that while a child might miss it, is there nonetheless. It is a reference to his dad having sex with a woman that he didn’t figure out until ‘years later’ but the reader puts it together because the reader is assumed to also now be older than Charlie and also reflecting on the situation. (The whispering and giggling in the other room when the women spends the night. They eventually marry.) I’m curious how a child reading a few of these passages would process them, being in the middle of those life changes and discoveries. It was delightful and fun, never really offensive, but read like a book for adults reminiscing over those difficult years of discovery.

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  1. I too have lost a mom to cancer after a long and drawn out affair with the disease and would love a chance to read this book! We have a “guilt cat” in our home (previous owner had died and if we didn’t take it, it would be sent to a shelter). I love cats but this thing is testing even me – it doesn’t have a cute little kitten mew, it has the most annoying mrrowwwww, not once or twice but twenty times until it has your attention. Favorite spot to be? Right in the middle of my bathroom sink, begging for a drink of water! :)

  2. I loved your review of this book. It is definitely now on my “to read” list. I don’t have any bear stories and I’m not sure I want any, at least not out in the wild. I love animals. Being raised on a farm, we didn’t have horses so our cows became my horses. It was a small dairy farm with about a dozen cows, and I had them all named. I could walk up to them and pet them anytime I wanted to. If they were laying down, there were some of them I could sit on. They’d then get up and I’d ride them. Not at all like riding a horse, but being horseless, it was fun just riding them around the corral. They’d just amble along at a slow speed (thank goodness), and when they were tired of me riding them, they’d go up alongside the fence so my leg would rub and I’d have to get off. Fun times. I hadn’t thought of this in absolutely ages. Thanks for reviving my memory.

  3. I too have had bear encounters backpacking in the Yosemite area (Hetch Hetchy). Once, returning from a day hike, we came across a bear in our base camp. He had my backpack in his hands, shaking it upside down with my toothbrush in his mouth. As girl scouts, we had properly hung up all our food…never did I think my toothbrush would give off enough scent for a bear to go looking for it. We screamed at him and he took off to the woods, dropping my toothbrush in his escape….I went without brushing for the rest of the trip however! This books sounds wonderful, looking forward to reading it and passing it along to others.

    ~ Mary

  4. Eleanor Robinson

    We use our dog Lucy as an example all the time, as to how you should be obedient and loyal to God and your church attendance.
    She has a collar that keeps her in the yard, which we explain for lessons that, we put collar on but when she gets schocked from it, she never blames us she trust us. She is loyal and obedient just like we should be to God, even during tough times and during times when we need discipline from God.
    We talk about learning how to be a Lucy!!

    Thanks for sharing with us.

  5. Childhood animal adventures were a constant part of my childhood. I loved animals, any kind in fact. One of my vivid memories happened in 4th grade. Steven, a student in my class, said he was selling snakes for $1.00 and I knew I needed one. The first problem I encountered was getting a dollar, I unfortunately decided the easiest way was to to take it from my mother’s purse. Once I bought it, I discovered my next problem – telling my folks I had a snake. Much to my surprise they did let me keep it for a couple of days in a fish tank, but later made me release it into the wild. I am not sure if I ever told them I stole the dollar or not.

  6. When I was in junior high, my family rented an RV and traveled around Canada. What was supposed to be a grand trip turned into a bit of a nightmare. I got food poisoning (or a 24 hour bug!), dad’s wallet got stolen, we lost the breaks on the RV at the top of a mountain and rolled into van, that had it’s door open with kids sitting inside (yep that was terrifying!) but the craziest memory for me was getting chased by a deer! We were in a campground where the deer were very friendly to the humans, so I, naively, thought I could pet it! When I was only a few feet away from the deer, I realized the foolishness of the idea, but it was too late. He didn’t charge me, but he definitely chased me around a few RV’s until he got distracted by something else. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time! I cannot WAIT to read this book!

  7. I have an 8 year old silky terrier named Bailey. I found it amazing that 2 years ago when I was pregnant with my son, Bailey somehow knew and would lay his paws and head on my stomach everyday, almost as if “incubating” the baby. My son, who will soon be 2 years old adores Bailey!

  8. Hi Karl,
    One of my favorite (really!) animal stories occured while I was teaching MKs in Tanzania. I was attending Swahili language school and one evening some of the other students and I had gathered in a screened-in room on campus for a heated game of Uno. Halfway into the game, a Tanzanian man – the night guard at the school – came up to the screened window and said something to us in Swahili. “Great,” we said to ourselves, “a chance to practice.” But as we looked around the group at one another it was clear that none of us had understood what he said. So we asked him to repeat it (“tena” – ‘again’ in Swahili), which he did… several times, much to our embarassment. Finally, my pride kicked in and I decided to go outside and talk to him face to face. I would greet him in proper Tanzanian fashion, figure out what he was saying and be the hero. But as soon as I walked over to the door and began to open it, he reached in, put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me firmly backwards! I was stunned. (Tanzanians are very gracious, hospitable people and this was extremely uncharacteristic behavior.)
    That is, until I looked down at the ground just outside the door, where he was pointing… and all of a sudden I figured out what he had been saying to us (over and over) through the window:
    “Don’t open the door; there’s a snake out here!”

    I was pretty embarassed… and relieved that he had done what was necessary to rescue me from stepping on the snake. He was trying to help us and keep us safe and we didn’t understand him because he was speaking another language.
    After my heart rate returned to normal, I began to think about that incident and why I was in Tanzania in the first place — to support Bible translation.
    God has a message for the world – to protect us and keep us safe – and millions of people don’t understand the message because the Bible hasn’t (yet!) been translated into their language.

    And that’s my animal story.

  9. This book sounds great. I love a good read, so can’t wait to give it a try.

    As for my animal story-I cried like a baby when I had to put our dog of 15 years down. And no one in my family would go with me and share in my grief:) For as much as he angered us when he would steal food off the counter or table, he was loyal and wanted to be where we were. I miss him.

  10. We would love to have a copy of this book for sure! We live in Charlottesville, Virginia and are at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We have had several animal encounters. The most memorable was with bees – yellow jackets! We had a Children’s Ministry Campout at the foot of the mountain. We met on Friday night and set up tents and a great campfire. Early the next morning we hiked to the top of the mountain with 15 kids and 6 leaders/parents. When we reached the top of the mountain, we stopped for a picnic. The children loved the view from a large rock area and we really enjoyed the time there. However, our trip down the mountain became very eventful! Our guide decided to go off the path. About half way down we had a little boy who began to scream and “dance” around. I went over and bent over beside him to see what the problem was. Immediately I was covered in yellow jackets. Kids began screaming and running in all directions. My husband said to walk off from the crowd about 50-100 yards and stand very quietly. I did so, praying every step. Praying for the children, for the adults, for myself and for the entire situation. God was merciful and blessed! I had recently gone through a round of chemotherapy and was unsure of how my body was going to react. My husband and the other adults gathered the children, while I quickly made my way the rest of the way down the mountain. We did not know who had any bee allergies or was unsure of whether or not they knew if they did or not. I knew that we would need immediate help if that became an issue. I went directly to the house and called 911. We had first responders on scene within two minutes. We were so very blessed that we only had two children with stings. Everyone else was fine! This gave us a wonderful opportunity to talk about bees, nature, natural responses, and the concept of fight/flight. This trip was very memorable. Most of those children are now 18+ years old. They still talk about it and the lessons of nature that we have learned.

  11. Our family, too, along with so many others have had the experience of dealing with cancer. My husband found out 3 years ago he had a rare liver disease, Primary Schlerosing Colingitis. The doctors told him to get a colonoscopy, as many patients with PSC will get colon cancer. He had no symptoms, however when the tests were taken, he found out he had stage 3 colon cancer. After a very difficult surgery and recovery where they removed his entire colon, chemotherapy treatments, etc., he has now been cancer free for 3 years!! Praise God! At the time of all of this, our youngest son, Jason, was a senior in high school and going through all those “final senior activities”. It was very hard on him, as I was down in Seattle with my husband for over a month. We returned home just prior to his graduation. I know it was really affecting him, as he really didn’t want to talk about it and tried to go about each day as if nothing was wrong. Avoidance was his coping mechanism. He loved our dog and took him for walks every day during this time. I know it was God and our dog, Cody, that helped him get through all of this without his parents around.
    Our family has a dairy farm and along with cows, had sheep, pigs, dogs, cats. Our kids were 4-H members and raised animals for showing at fairs, etc. They were just a big part of our lives! Jason, in particular, always was close to the animals he raised. I still remember one of his sheep, who followed him around by putting his nose in Jason’s hand was supposed to be sold after the fair. I found Jason laying beside his sheep in the pen saying goodbye.
    Important life lessons were learned through all of this. Whether animals or family or friends, we know that in all things, God gives us strength to bear whatever we go through in life. My husband has spoken to many different groups about going through difficult times. He’s a high school teacher and has shared with so many kids and families about what God does to help us bear the things that seem unbearable. He’s one Almighty and loving God!!

  12. Thank you for letting us know about this book. It sounds like a great story!
    Last year we were considering getting another dog. We went to the local humane society and they had mostly large dogs and we needed a smaller one because our current dog was small and we didn’t want him to be intimidated (which he easily is). They told us they would be getting more dogs in a couple of days so we came back and met a perfect sized yorkie poo named Baxter. He had a family that had already put in adoption papers on him, but they weren’t final so we decided to meet with him anyway. As soon as he came in the room,he was so happy to see us and such a fun energetic guy,I wanted him immediately. But my sons, all teenage boys weren’t sure a “yorkie-poo” was manly enough to have at our house. I was able to get one of them on board (the youngest, I figured the 2 older ones would be out on their own soon anyway) and we put in an application but still there was not much of a chance of getting him because the other family just needed one more thing and they had first choice. We really didn’t think there was anyway that we would get him. But I guess he is the right dog for us because they called the next day and said the other family didn’t take him and all we had to do was bring our dog in so they could meet and make sure they would get along. Everything went well and we brought him home. Now the boys (including their dad) that thought he was too much of a “girl” dog, love him more than I thought they could. He takes turns sleeping with them, they take him with them whenever they can, they even ask if they can keep him when they move out. (The answer is NO!) We had to teach him a lot about manners and such when he came to live with us, but the joy and love he brings is well worth it!

  13. Thanks you everyone for taking the tine to share your wonderful stories. I am really enjoying them. Keep them coming! I won’t choose the winner for a few days, and then will announce here so the rest can hurry up and order the book! I also talk about Emory’s Gift on my podcast this week:

  14. Donna Leventakis

    My son died in a car accident 8 years ago at the age of 27. Nearly a year later my husband died at the age of 52. My husband asked me why God had taken Bill and not him since he was the “bad” guy. I told him that God was giving him the chance to repent. We had a very difficult life with my husband before and especially after my son’s death.
    We once fed a stray dog and from that day on she was our guard. I am not an animal lover but Lella showed me how faithful she was to our whole family and it made me feel bad when I saw how little I love my Master. She would leave everything behind even her new-born babies to follow us. She taught me many valuable lessons.

  15. I am looking forward to reading this book, hopefully it will help others here that are in this very same situation. We lost a staff member last year to cancer and this would help us & others going through it.
    My husband and I were in Australia staying with family recently. One night we were asked to set up the outside area for a barbecue. We set up all the seats, tables etc and were just about to sit down, when my husband’s auntie screamed at us from inside. She ran out threw us aside and tipped our chairs upside down. Then she sprayed them liberally with bug spray. Inside the folds of the plastic chairs were poisonous spiders with their webs. I sure am glad she killed them before we sat down, otherwise our butts and lives were in jeopardy.

  16. Karl may want to censor this story, as it’s not exactly PG.

    I found a snake one day outside the front doors of the church. Since we had children at the church preschool, I decided to do something about it. I went and got a long wooden pole (custodial mop) and stomped on its head. It writhe quite a bit and then stopped moving. Using the pole, I moved the snake into a box and left it outside the church building to dispose of later. Some of the preschool kids came by and looked at it. Then I came out and as I was getting ready to dispose of it, I noticed that the snake was actually alive and playing possum. I thought of how dangerous it could have been if the kids had been there when it decided to stop playing dead. Needless to say, I struck its head a few more times, then taped the box together, before wrapping it in a trash bag to dispose.

  17. This is a good review and sounds like possibly a good resource for people working with hurting kids in their churches. I am always looking for good resources. It reminded me of a time my husband and I were camping in a tent with our 2 springer spaniel dogs. We were the only ones in the Eastern Oregon camp ground and a pack of coyotes came to the edge of the campsite after dark. They were howling and trying to call our dogs out. We brought them in the tent and all night they slept on top of us, scared to death (such brave dogs). Needless to say neither of us or the dogs got a lick of sleep that night. To this day I shiver at the sound of a coyote howl.

  18. And the winners are……
    Drum Roll……..

    Mary Robinson
    Carolyn Thauer
    Eleanor Robinson

    Congratulations! You will be contacted by email shortly.

    Thank you to everyone who contributed to this review.

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