________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 18 . . . .May 13, 2005


Up to Low.

Brian Doyle.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood, 1982/2004.
108 pp., pbk., $7.95.
ISBN 0-88899-622-5.

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Libby McKeever.

***½ /4



"Mean Hughie's got the cancer, they tell me. I'll believe it when I see it. I think he's too mean to die."

"Yesser," Dad was saying, "if mean Hughie dies, he'll have to go somewhere, but I can't for the life of me guess where it is they'd send him. Heaven's out of the question and Hell's too nice a spot for him."

"Frank, why didn't you tell us you bought a new car?" Dad said, after he got the feel of her. 'I wanted to surprise you,' Frank said. I'll be faster than the train. And we can go anywhere once we get there."

"Surprise us! You pretty near ran us down."

It was half past eight when we turned into my grandfather's farmyard.

And in the yard, the people.

There was Crazy Mickey, my great-grandfather, and his wife Minnie, on their swing. Crazy Mickey, born in 1850. One hundred years old. And Minnie, ninety-nine.

We got out of the car and Frank leaned in the gate so he wouldn't fall over and everybody was talking about Mean Hughie and the cancer and maybe taking Frank to the priest and the weather, but I had my mind on something else.

I was thinking about Baby Bridget.


Up to Low is a very rewarding story, one where myth becomes fact and dreams become reality. Themes of abuse and forgiveness, love, loss and acceptance are intermingled throughout the book as Brian Doyle paints a tale in earthy tones that can be tasted and smelt as his unique characterslive out their reality in this story of a young boy's coming of age.

     Low is a small haven nestled in Quebec's Gatineau Hills; it is a place of memories and family, where Brian Doyle brings quirky characters of Irish ancestry to life. It has been a few years since Young Tommy has visited Low, and this summer he joins his father and his Uncle Frank in a hair-raising trip in Frank's new Buick up to the country farm. The shinny new vehicle is worse for wear after Frank's beer induced haze causes the car to acquire many dents and bruises, spurring Young Tommy's dad to insist that Frank "take the cure" and give up drinking.

     Young Tommy passes the trip listening to his story-telling dad recount tales of his unconventional family and his boyhood rival, the abusive Mean Hughie. Young Tommy daydreams about how frightened he was of Mean Hughie and about Baby Bridget, his daughter, a girl with one arm and green trillium shaped eyes, "the deep green of the Gatineau Hills." When he saw her last three summers ago, she looked about the same age as he was, so she would be fifteen now. He continues to dream.

     This reverie continues for Young Tommy as the men haphazardly steer the increasingly dented Buick through obstacles in the Gatineau Hills, their destination the old farm where their family waits as it frozen in time. Young Tommy's 100 year-old great grandfather, crazy Mickey, and Grandma Minnie wait on the garden swing surrounded by a myriad of aunts and uncles whose movements seem unchanged throughout the years.

     The aptly named Aunt Dottie is another unusual member of this clan, and her eccentric actions perforate the story with humorous attempts keep Young Tommy and his dad safe. These efforts entail swabbing all surfaces with Lysol, including the berries they are to eat, all whilst surgically gloved and masked. Her purifying actions don't seem to touch the quietly inebriated Uncle Frank, whose living standards present a constant problem for Aunt Dottie.

     Young Tommy eventually gets an opportunity to slip away on an errand to Poor Bridget's (Mean Hughie's wife) home to buy some fresh bread for breakfast. His objective is to see Baby Bridget again, and he is not disappointed for, regardless of a shy start, they are soon picking blueberries together and forming a bond of understanding. Despite the horror of the truth behind her disfigurement, Baby Bridget's outward quietude and competence soon bring understanding for Tommy. Her ability to pick blueberries one handed faster than he can with two leaves him marveling at her capabilities regardless of her loss.

     In the midst of the ebb and flow of the family squabbles, idiosyncrasies are tolerated, and Young Tommy and Bridget draw closer together. Shy at first, they begin to trust each other and embark upon a journey to answer questions about the living, debunk myths, heal past hurts and forgive the dying.

     Up to Low is a worthwhile stand-alone story, and it features characters that have appeared in a number of Brian Doyle's books that cover the lives of generations of young Irish settlers from the Gatineau Hills, Quebec. The preceding titles are Uncle Ronald, Angel Square, Easy Avenue and The Covered Bridge.

     Although this story was written in 1982, it is not dated by the characters or the setting, but rather it projects a timeless tale of first love, tolerance and growing up. Young people will relate to Young Tommy's acceptance of his peculiar family and applaud his ability to overcome his fears and to pursue a young girl who has been hurt, helping her find contentment in herself.

Highly Recommended.

Libby McKeever is the library assistant at Whistler Secondary School and a library technician student in Whistler, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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