Quill and Quire

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Robbiestime

by Don Dickinson

Robbiestime has some of the same characters who appeared in Don Dickinson’s first book, the short-story collection Fighting the Upstream. It also has some of that book’s old-fashioned Canadian qualities, such as a preoccupation with the vagaries of childhood, family, and peer relationships, and a feel for small-town setting.

The story, set in the 1950s, concerns the effects of time and family history on 11-year-old Robbie Hendershot of Wasagam, Saskatchewan, a summer tourist outpost. Dickinson creates magical portmanteau words for periods of time. The spectre of “duringthewar” haunts the bedevilled marriage of Robbie’s parents – Jake, his conflicted father, served as a rear gunner in the Second World War. “PrinceAlberttime” recalls days of hardship and deprivation, particularly for Meg, Robbie’s sad-hearted English mother, while “Robbiestime” refers to the unfolding present, alternately tense and exuberant.

Told relentlessly in Robbie’s young voice, with frequent rushes of narrative and an onomatapoeic insistence, the novel rewards a reader’s patience. It’s rich in episodes of schoolboy humour, prankishness, and suffering, but these digressionary veils drop one by one to reveal the book’s real subject: the struggle to understand the nature of time, language, love, and suffering.

The strain of maintaining the singular narrative voice of a young boy sometimes shows, but it is checked by the diversions provided by an extensive cast of secondary characters, all of whom are believable, some very compelling. Dickinson powerfully renders the story’s emotional blows (the deaths of Robbie’s “Grandad” and his best friend, and Meg’s departure for England with her youngest son) and his central character’s rare courage, balancing Robbie’s loss of faith in God with his newfound Huck Finn-style independence.