Uncle Ronald

by Brian Doyle,
144 pages,
ISBN: 088899267X

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Children`s Books
by Jeffrey Canton

Brian Doyle has always used comedy in his fictions to explore issues that are relevant to the lives of the young readers he is writing for. Fans of classic Doyle novels like Up to Low, Angel Square, and Spud Sweetgrass know just what's in store when they open up a new Doyle novel. He has delighted and charmed his readers with his irascibly madcap sense of humour-he's a master punster-but behind each of the rollicking belly-laughs is a humane and sensitively expressed desire to understand what it means to be a child. Doyle uses humour to help answer some very difficult questions and splendidly provides his unique take on how to cope with the world we live in.

Old Mickey, the first-person narrator of his latest novel, Uncle Ronald, is 112 years old. He can't remember what he had for lunch or the name of the nurse who looks after him or even where's he's living but "I can remember everything, in vivid detail, about November 1895, when the army came up from Ottawa to attack the people around the little town of Low." In the autumn of 1895, the twelve-year-old Mickey had been smuggled out of Ottawa by his mother and sent to his Uncle Mickey's farm in Low. Smuggled out?

On one level, Uncle Ronald is a crazy and colourful account of the shenanigans that the good people of Low get up to when they refuse to pay taxes. Doyle introduces us to a colourful and eccentric cast of characters that will delight readers young and old. There's sweet Cecilia Hickey from the down the road, who Uncle Ronald has been courting; the mischievous O'Malley sisters, who look so much alike that you can't tell "which is which or who was who", and the McCooey clan: Walkabout, Tommy Twelve Toes, Peek-a-boo, Turnaround, Shirt-tail, Barnyard, Mean Bone, and all the rest of the McCooey gang.

But Doyle isn't just writing a riproaringly comic novel. Uncle Ronald is also a deadly serious novel about wife and child abuse. Doyle absolutely sends chills down your spine when Old Mickey tells us, "When my father beat my mother he would beat her with the buckle end of the belt. But when he beat me he would turn the belt around and hold the other end so that he'd be beating me with the end that didn't have the buckle on it. My mother told me he did that because he liked me better."

What makes Uncle Ronald particularly impressive as a work of fiction is how Doyle deals with this difficult and emotional issue. He's Brian Doyle; he does make us laugh as Mickey recounts the desperate measures he's forced to take as a perennial bed-wetter, but as a reader we are very aware that Doyle's not making fun of Mickey; he's forcing us to confront the turmoil that Mickey faces and to face it ourselves. Doyle is making us deal with the fact that our society has long covered up the abuse that young children have suffered. And Doyle makes it clear-this is not just Mickey's story-that it's also the story of Mickey's mother as well.

Who is Uncle Ronald for? Young adults who ask questions. Readers who are ready to face the world head-on. Readers who aren't afraid. Readers who want to see life as it is: full of darkness and full of light. Sensitive readers, thinking readers, humane readers. You do have to know your young reader well before sharing what Brian Doyle has achieved in Uncle Ronald. This isn't an easy book to read-for teen readers or for adults readers. But it is a courageous novel that leads you through the darkness and out into the light; a novel that makes you laugh and cry, as only Brian Doyle can. 

Jeffrey Canton is program co-ordinator for the Canadian Children's Book Centre in Toronto and reviews books for adults and children on CBC's Fresh Air.


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