The tendency to make everyone and everything in Newfoundland seem good-natured, offbeat, and comical has become a fatiguing stereotype and it somewhat tempers enjoyment of the first bit of Barry Squires, Full Tilt.
But in the hands of Heather Smith, who is currently on a roll of critical acclaim – thanks to the 2017 YA novel The Agony of Bun O’Keefe, the 2018 middle-grade novel-in-verse Ebb & Flow (which is the reigning TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award winner), and the 2019 picture book The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden – the initially clichéd East Coast eccentricity of Barry Squires turns into something warm and endearing.
The titular character is a 12-year-old St. John’s native who just wants to tap dance. Specifically, he wants to join the Full Tilt Dancers, a Riverdance-style troupe that is the city’s second-most popular entertainment attraction after the bagpiper Alfie Bragg and his Agony Bag.
Barry comes from a loving family, which includes his nan; mom (who’s got the “baby blues”); clocksmith dad; older sister, Shelagh; older brother, Pius; and baby brother, Gord. Having seen Barry’s moves, they’re not betting on his success. “It was hard to hold my matador pose with Shelagh huffing and Mom tutting and Pius swearing under his breath,” says Barry. “They’ll be sorry, I thought, when their cold, dead hearts come to life at the sight of me soaring over the sofa.” It’s this passion (more than poise) that earns him a spot in the troupe.
Unfortunately, his quick temper and self-consciousness about a port-stain birthmark on his face often work against Barry, causing him to take a swing at anyone who teases or crosses him. And his inflated sense of his talent doesn’t do him any favours in the team tap atmosphere.
When he’s not dancing, Barry meets up with his new friend, Saibal, who’s a bit cheeky and has zero tolerance for Newfoundlanders who think he’s an immigrant because of his brown skin. Meanwhile, he’ll happily con some money out of tourists who assume he’s a poor refugee. The fact that Saibal then uses that money to buy food for local panhandlers just makes him that much more of a complex character.
The two preteens find plenty of “no good to get up to” – as Saibal describes it – mouthing off to a number of respectable citizens along the way. But the fact that everywhere they go, they’re happily pushing six-month-old Gord in a stroller makes these wannabe shit-disturbers adorably sweet and ultimately harmless. When a convenience store clerk won’t sell them a pornographic magazine (which they plan to trade an older teen for tap shoes), Barry gives the mag to the baby – who proceeds to rip it. “Saibel pointed to the YOU BREAK IT, YOU BUY IT sign. He slapped a five dollar bill on the counter. ‘That should cover it.’”
While Barry’s tap dance exploits and the scenes of familial squabbling are wildly entertaining, the young boys’ burgeoning friendship gives the story its heart.
After veering away from caricatures, Smith fully commits to the Squires and their circle of friends, and her fondness for them is contagious. The trick with this novel is to go into it knowing nothing about what ultimately befalls the family, what knocks them down and gets them back up. Under those circumstances, this is one foot-stompingly enjoyable, while also heart-rending, read.