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Everything on a Waffle

by Polly Horvath

Splice the literary DNA of Pippi Longstocking with Anne Shirley and you pretty much have Primrose Squarp, the 11-year-old narrator of Polly Horvath’s new novel, Everything on a Waffle. And what a vibrant, funny, frank, and irrepressible narrator she is. Horvath, author of five previous books for children, including The Trolls (published in 1999 and shortlisted for both the National Book Award and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award) lives in Metchosin, B.C., and I am mortified to admit that I had never heard of her before now. But her terrific new novel has made me an instant fan, and it deserves to win her thousands more.

Primrose cuts straight to the point in the novel’s opening sentences: “I live in Coal Harbour, British Columbia. I have never lived any place else. My name is Primrose Squarp. I am eleven years old. I have hair the color of carrots in an apricot glaze (recipe to follow), skin fair and clear where it isn’t freckled, and eyes like summer storms. One June day a typhoon arose at sea that blew the rain practically perpendicular to our house. My father’s fishing boat was late getting in….”

With the speed of a tall tale, Primrose, in the next two pages, is orphaned, becomes a ward of the Coal Harbour town council, and is put in the temporary care of her neighbour Miss Perfidy – truly one of the least inspiring babysitters imaginable. A stingy, suspicious woman, Miss Perfidy has little tolerance for Primrose’s heartfelt belief that her parents are not dead. Primrose, however, is undaunted, and admonishes her babysitter with characteristic eloquence and panache: “‘I don’t know what you think the story of Jonah is about, Miss Perfidy,’ I said. ‘But to me it is about how hopeful the human heart is. I am certain my parents, if not in the belly of a whale, are wondering how I am doing and trying to get home to me!’ I called the last few words out in the direction Miss Perfidy had gone. She often stalked off when I was in the middle of a sentence. It didn’t encourage many heartfelt confidences.”

Oh, that more 11-year-old narrators had such linguistic verve. A couple more pages on, and things momentarily pick up for Primrose with the sudden arrival of her Uncle Jack, a former navy man turned real estate agent who has his sights set on developing Coal Harbour into a chic tourist town. Primrose moves in with her somewhat distant but good-natured uncle, and with cheerful stoicism, tries to get on with a life that offers up more tribulations. She endures a brief stint in jail, the loss of a toe, the loss of a finger, and the scheming presence of one Miss Honeycut, the school counsellor who is besotted with Uncle Jack and campaigns to have Primrose put into foster care, so she can better lure Jack into matrimony. Add to this the denizens of a small community who distrust Uncle Jack, and mostly think Primrose imbalanced for her refusal to grieve for her parents, and you have a pretty good idea what our girl is up against. It sounds like it could be grim. Instead it’s hilarious – one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time.

What makes Everything on a Waffle a truly wonderful book is not simply its engaging heroine and comic series of unfortunate events; it’s also the fabulous cast of colourful supporting characters that Horvath refuses to render as clichés. There are no simplistic villains here: Horvath takes the time to portray the vulnerability of Miss Honeycut and especially Miss Perfidy, so we see them as real people deserving of our patience and compassion.

Though Horvath’s Primrose frequently notes and comments on people’s absurdities, she does so in a curious and even affectionate way that never comes across as snooty or superior. While being bludgeoned by the self-centred Miss Honeycut’s interminable anecdotes of all her infirm friends, Primrose’s attention wanders: “I wondered why Miss Honeycut had so many dying friends. Whether she had so many friends that naturally some of them would be dying or if she liked terminally ill people and looked for them.”

The sheer warmth and humanity of the characters imbues practically every page, without once lapsing into sentimentality. No wet eyes or whispered avowals of love, just people getting on with the business of being human, foibles and all, and trying to do right. For Horvath, a big part of the business of being human is food – thus the waffles of the title, and Primrose’s tendency in every chapter to slip in “recipe to follow” after a mention of a particular dish. Some of the novel’s finest scenes play out in the kitchen of the town’s one restaurant, where Primrose takes refuge from sneering schoolmates and her own loneliness. Here, she trades stories with Miss Bowzer, the straight-talking, chain-smoking chef (who serves all her meals on a waffle), while simultaneously learning how to cook. And each chapter ends with a recipe – Cherry Pie Pork Chops, caramel apples, tea biscuits, Polynesian skewers – told in Primrose’s idiosyncratic voice.

Occasionally I found myself wondering if the voice might be at times a bit too sophisticated for readers the same age as 11-year-old Primrose. Will they get her astringent observations and witty rejoinders? And in one instance, Primrose tells her uncle an extended story that, regardless of the book’s heightened literary tone, is too formal and choreographed to ring true.

Throughout Everything on a Waffle, Horvath’s writing crackles with energy. There are no dull sentences here, no flab. This is a funny, wise, big-hearted novel about the unquenchable nature of hope and joy, and the nourishing power of storytelling. Everyone should read it.