LG Lore

Doyling Around.

by Jeffrey Canton

Jeffrey Canton is the Children's Book Review Editor at Books in Canada and a freelance writer and reviewer whose work appears in newspapers and magazines across Canada.

In Anita Silvey's rich and wonderful compendium of children's literature, Children's Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), you'll find only a handful of Canadian children's novelists - James Houston, Monica Hughes, Jean Little, Janet Lunn, L.M. Montgomery, Farley Mowat, Kit Pearson, Ernest Thompson Seton, Tim Wynne-Jones. And of course, you'll find our latest Hans Christian Andersen nominee, the irrepressible Brian Doyle. Doyle has for nearly twenty years now led Canadian children on the most madcap of romps in award-winning books including Up to Low, Easy Avenue and Uncle Ronald which all received the prestigious Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award. Doyle's achievements have also been recognized by the Canadian Authors Association's Vicky Metcalf Award for Body of Work in 1991. He is a two-time winner of the Mr. Christie's Book Award for Covered Bridge (1991) and Uncle Ronald (1997).

In her Children's Books and their Creators entry on Doyle, Canadian author and critic Sarah Ellis writes, "Whether his characters are contemplating the fragile possibility of love, torn between two loyalties, incensed and impotent in the face of social injustice, or just plain confused at the chaotic richness of the world, Doyle respects the largeness and seriousness of their concerns...His style goes under and beyond and above realism. He includes recipes, songs, lurid headlines, advertising jingles, and an unsurpassed use of the three-word paragraph. His worlds are at once the low comedy of outhouse jokes and slapstick, the magic realism of madmen and dreamers, a set of linked poetic images, and a good yarn told by somebody's uncle. Combining gossip, news, anecdote, admonition, and tall tale, Brian Doyle takes the novel back to its origins in story-telling - and forward to his own finely controlled mingling of comedy, romance, and epic."1

High praise indeed, and well deserved. Since the publication of his first novel, Hey, Dad!, in 1978, Brian Doyle has delighted readers, young and old, with his unique style and his distinctive voice. Blending comedy and tragedy with a dash of Dylan Thomas, a sprinkle of Shakespeare and a touch of blarney, Brian Doyle explores in each of his novels issues that are relevant to the lives of the young readers for whom he is writing. But behind each of the rollicking bellylaughs is a humane and sensitively expressed desire to understand what it means to be a child.

Indeed, what makes Brian Doyle particularly impressive as a writer of fiction is how sensitively he deals with difficult and emotional issues. He has brilliantly confronted racism, sexism, environmental pollution, the trials and tribulations of parent/child relations... and he does so with eyes wide open, ready to take on a world that all too often turns its back on the needs of children and young people. In a Toronto Star interview, Sarah Ellis reports: "Asked about his reasons for writing, Doyle eloquently echoes and expands on a statement made by John Updike. 'I write, not to proselytize, instruct, inform, moralize or convert,' he says. 'Neither do I write to render verdicts or effect justice. I write to present evidence and bear witness. Evidence witnessed through youthful eyes -- eyes clear-sighted, albeit inexperienced. The eyes of the child who saw that the Emperor was naked.'" 2

Doyle's stance hasn't changed over the years. In a 1989 Canadian Children's Book Centre profile, he comments, "The kids in my books are not literary or precious. They're in the tradition of Huck Finn, who was not a nice boy. He was a funny kid though. He was a bum, he stole, he even wanted to murder Aunt Polly, he broke laws - and he hung around with a "nigger". The book made that "nigger" a hero - and it got published. I like books that deal with big issues but still have a sense of humour. I'm trying to deal with old verities - love and death and loyalty. I'm serious about my themes. I try to put music into my prose. I try to leave some big questions unanswered."3

Doyle has also explored throughout his career what it means to be a Canadian. As he conjures us into the lives of Megan, Ryan, Tommy, Hubbo and Spud, he gleefully shares with us his take on just what it is that makes us unique. At the same time, his novels have a universal appeal that allows them to magically travel across borders. Up To Low, You Can Pick Me Up at Peggy's Cove and Easy Avenue have all been published in Canada in French-language editions. As well, France's Actes Sud will be publishing both Spud Sweetgrass and Spud In Winter later this year and Italy's venerable publishing house Mondadori will be publishing both books in the near future. Doyle's nomination by IBBY-Canada (the Canadian section of the International Board on Books for Young People) for the 1998 Hans Christian Andersen Award cemented a reputation for excellence that Doyle has developed with his nine outstanding novels and numerous short stories.

It's hard to believe that it was over twenty years ago that Groundwood Books published Doyle's first novel, Hey, Dad! (1978). The sequel, You Can Pick Me Up at Peggy's Cove, appeared the next year. Sheila Egoff and Judith Saltman in The New Republic of Childhood recognize Doyle's talent in these two early books, but are quite clear that upon neither book does Doyle's literary reputation rest: "Although Brian Doyle's earlier two books show evidence of originality and a fresh use of Canadian settings, they have more than a touch of the American problem novel about them. Doyle's books are in the tradition of mingling children and adults in a strained but ultimately liberating relationship. The adults cause the problems, but in most cases they also help to ameliorate them and participate in the healing process."4 Egoff and Saltman think more highly of Up to Low (1982) and Angel Square (1984) -- at the time, they considered Up to Low "the only work [in Canada] that shapes the diverse realities of adolescence into a work of art that transcends the category of young-adult fiction," on the same level as Jill Paton Walsh's Goldengrove and Unleaving, and Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved. 5 Since then, Spud Sweetgrass and Uncle Ronald have appeared; it is these later books that have made Brian Doyle a Canadian literary landmark.

That said, just how do Hey, Dad! and You Can Pick Me Up at Peggy's Cove stand up to the rest of the Doyle canon today?

Hey, Dad! takes readers on a very bumpy road trip across Canada. A family vacation isn't at all what Megan had planned for her summer vacation. Megan can't imagine anything worse than being cooped up with her family, especially her dad, in a stuffy car driving from Ottawa to Vancouver. He's so embarrassing. Always drawing attention to himself with his tall tales, his goofy jokes and his overwhelming need to be friendly and convivial with everyone he meets. Megan doesn't want anything to do with her dad. But travelling with her parents and her pesky younger brother, Ryan, does gets Megan thinking about her relationship with her family and, perhaps most importantly, with her father, with surprising results. Not even Megan is prepared for the revelations that this trip brings. Hey, Dad! brilliantly evokes Megan's frustration as she fights to come into her own while grappling with what it means to be part of a family. All the basic elements of a satisfying Doyle novel are present, but this is one is definitely more constrained. Angel Square and Uncle Ronald, for example, play more freely with time in the interests of plot development. The conventional narrative style of Hey, Dad! makes it sound more like a contemporary young adult novel than some of Doyle's later works. The linear narrative mirrors the family's route to the west coast, and doesn't bounce around the way so much other Doyle fiction does.

If Hey, Dad! is Megan's story, Ryan has You Can Pick Me Up in Peggy's Cove (1979) all to himself. Published a year after Hey, Dad!, the book shows further development of the classic Doyle style. (Peggy's Cove will never look the same after you meet Doyle's crazed tourists.) Dad runs away, so Megan goes to stay with relatives in Vancouver and Ryan goes to Peggy's Cove to visit Aunt Fay. Ryan just doesn't understand why Dad has left, and tries desperately to think up ways to get him to come back home. You Can Pick Me Up in Peggy's Cove follows the letter that Ryan is writing to his dad but which the reader never sees. The action is divided primarily between Ryan's fishing at sea with his friends Eddie and Wingding and getting up to no good with a local tough, the Drummer. Perhaps because a single place plays such a prominent position in Peggy's Cove compared to the plethora of sites that fill the pages of Hey, Dad!, Doyle is able to provide Peggy's Cove with a more developed cast of characters including Aunt Fay, the Widow Weed, Drummer's mother, the Lighthouse Lady and the Lady who ran the Post Office. Doyle has the ability to fully flesh out these minor characters with the briefest of descriptions.Peggy's Cove is also a novel that depends far more on anecdote than does Hey, Dad! Anecdotes not just about Ryan and his dad but fish tales from Eddie including the wonderful story of the shark and the Widow Weed's man. Doyle is here moving towards the kind of style that we more closely associate with Angel Square, the Spud books and Uncle Ronald, balancing a genuine concern with issues in the lives of children and teens -- here we have the death of a friend as well as the continuing exploration of Ryan's relationship with his father -- with a lively comic style. As always, comedy augments the serious issues and ideas at the core of Doyle's fiction.

Megan's and Ryan's stories still provide a memorable jumping-off place for the reader. Mentions of Nixon's resignation and Roberta Flack date Hey, Dad! a little, but overall both books have aged well, like a good scotch. Twenty years and more later, Hey, Dad! and You Can Pick Me Up at Peggy's Cove make for a wonderful introduction to Brian Doyle and a taste of the riches still to come.

End Notes

1. Ellis, Sarah, "Brian Doyle", in Children's Books and Their Creators, Anita Silvey, ed. (Houghton Mifflin, 1995). p. 210.

2. Ellis, Sarah, "Will world learn secrets of Doyle's devotees?", Toronto Star, December 20, 1997.

3. Brian Doyle biography sheet. Canadian Children's Book Centre, 1989.

4. Egoff, Sheila and Judith Saltman, The New Republic of Childhood (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 50.

5. Egoff and Saltman, p. 87.

Brian Doyle's Novels:

Angel Square. Groundwood, 1984. ISBN 0888992300.

Covered Bridge. Groundwood, 1990. ISBN 0888991908.

Easy Avenue. Groundwood, 1988. ISBN 0888990650.

Hey, Dad! Groundwood, 1978. ISBN 0888990057.

Spud in Winter. Groundwood, 1995. ISBN 0888992246.

Spud Sweetgrass. Groundwood, 1992. ISBN 0888991894.

Uncle Ronald. Groundwood, 1996. ISBN 088899267X.

Up to Low. Groundwood, 1982. ISBN 0888990170.

You Can Pick Me Up at Peggy's Cove. Groundwood, 1979. ISBN 0888991169.


Jeffrey Canton

Volume 3, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, 1999

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