Environmental heroism and the power of storytelling in the novels and papers of Brian Doyle: "The Infinite Family of Organisms"

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Date: Dec. 22, 2016
Publisher: University of Toronto Press
Document Type: Essay
Length: 11,770 words

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Abstract: Brian Doyle's much-noted emphasis on environment provides a rich entry-point into his multi-award-winning corpus. Young protagonists' bonds with nature resonate throughout Doyle's work, especially as they mature into community leaders exploring eco-social justice. This paper maps Doyle's developing engagement with environmental and ecosocial justice themes through research in the Brian Doyle Fonds and Groundwood Books Fonds, archives that provide invaluable but as-of-yet underutilized resources for scholars of Canadian children's literature. It argues that Doyle's novels develop a vision of interpenetrated social and environmental justice rooted in children's empowerment as artistic creators and community leaders.

Keywords: Doyle, Brian; Groundwood Books Papers; Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books; ecocriticism; environmental justice; ecopedagogy; ecoliteracy; ecopoesis

"[P]lace is my most important character .... Where I write best is in evoking the physical environment." --Brian Doyle ("Life on Easy Street") "I hope you are getting some 'Positive Citizenship' into your new book, or you might never make it to [district X]." (2) --Patsy Aldana ("Letter to Brian Doyle," 24 Feb. 1984)

The principal of a small Ontario elementary school disapproved of Brian Doyle's first novel. Indeed, he disliked Hey, Dad! so much that he returned the two copies in his school library to Doyle's publisher, Groundwood Books, explaining that they were exactly the kind of "Negative Values Books" his school was trying to avoid in its efforts to "promote 'Positive Citizenship'" (W. P. R.). The principal's refusal to engage with the novel's ecopedagogical approach to "positive" community participation is revealing for its too-hasty surface-level literalism, which denies the novel's dramatic progression. Hey, Dad! is an ecopoetic Bildungsroman in which a thirteen-year-old protagonist grows into emotional maturity by learning to love and respect the non-human environment on a cross-Canada road trip. Groundwood founder and then-publisher Patsy Aldana appears to have interpreted the principal's reaction as a warning of creeping "censorship" and acted quickly. She sent Doyle the wry note quoted in my epigraph and forwarded the offending letter to colleagues at both Quill & Quire ("Letter to A. V.") and the Book and Periodical Development Council ("Letter to N. F."), asking them respectively to "quote it in full" in the periodical and circulate it across the industry committee. While some reviewers hailed Hey, Dad! as a "breakthrough" in Canadian children's literature (Hunt), (3) Doyle later mentioned that it was "banned in a couple of places" and joked about reprimands from other offended readers ("Up Doyle Way" 74). Both editor and author remained committed to Groundwood's mandate to steward non-didactic, challengingly relevant Canadian children's literature (Doyle, "Mostly" 3), which Aldana had fittingly launched with the choice of Hey, Dad! as one of its inaugural publications.

These exchanges are about censorship, certainly, but they also bear out two foundational questions about pedagogies of "Positive Citizenship" in Canadian children's literature: what kinds of narrative can effectively teach "Positive Citizenship," and how can this teaching happen in or through literature? For Doyle, the answer to these questions is that children's literature should teach by favouring open-ended questions and "ambiguity"...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A501526984