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Uncle Ronald

by Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle writes stories in two main flavours: contemporary and personal/historical. With Uncle Ronald, Doyle takes us a century back in time and up to Low, his fictional village in Quebec’s Gatineau mountains. This is a past young readers rarely encounter – neither American nor British, reached not through time warps but the magic of voice and living memory. Mickey, Doyle’s narrator, is an extraordinary 112 years old, yet the world he recalls doesn’t seem so very different from the one we know. There are trains and electric streetcars, people who are kind and generous, and others who behave very badly indeed.

Uncle Ronald is tragicomedy set to an Irish jig, against the slapstick backdrop of the Great Low Rebellion of 1895. One hundred years ago Mickey was that familiar Doyle figure, a sweet-natured boy crowding adolescence. His parents left Low for Ottawa, where Mickey’s father changed from a silver-tongued lover into a violent, angry man. Now Mickey’s mother schemes to send the boy back to her brother in Low. If not quite paradise, it’s at least a world where good has a fighting chance. The ostensible moral – that the cycle of violence must be broken – is driven home a trifle extravagantly: Mickey’s father has to be reassembled for burial. Mickey, however, has come through life in pretty good shape.

The writing can be lyrical and arresting, as in the opening line: “A curled-up dead maple leaf, one of the last, limps down the cold, clay path like an old, crippled spider.” There are also bad jokes, pratfalls, pissed beds, drunks, broken heads, and marvellous, mythic characters: the mirror-identical O’Malley twins, the gentle giant Uncle Ronald, and endless, eccentric McCooeys, like Walkabout McCooey, Peek-a-boo McCooey, and Shirt-tail McCooey. This is perhaps not the Doyle book for kids to begin with: Easy Street, Angel Square, or You Can Pick Me Up at Peggy’s Cove may be easier on undeveloped palates. But for the young reader who has acquired a taste for Doyle, Uncle Ronald is vintage.