Before they’ve even arrived at the remote Canadian island where they are to spend their summer, Barnaby and Christie are making trouble. The two 10-year-olds met on the boat over and immediately started quarrelling and getting into trouble. But a few days of indulgence (two breakfasts!) and discipline (cleaning the cemetery), and the two become allies and friends to each other and to everyone on the island. They don’t stop making trouble, but, for the most part, it’s not mean-spirited trouble. But then Barnaby’s uncle arrives.
This 1963 novel by Rohan O’Grady is a dark comedy, where the darkness is really very serious, but it’s so tempered by the lightness that it doesn’t feel weighty. It becomes clear very quickly that Barnaby’s uncle is an abuser and a murderer, and when the children decide that the only thing to do it to kill him, their decision is understandable because no one ever believe Barnaby when he tries to explain what’s happening. This aspect of the story feels almost too real because it’s so common a story.
But this isn’t a serious tale of the ravages of child abuse. It’s a dark comedy. It’s strongly hinted that Uncle isn’t just a bad dude but a literal monster. And there’s a one-eared cougar who becomes key to the events of the novel and a pleasing character in his own right. The book shows its age a bit in its handling of a character with some sort of mental disability, but I do think the depiction is meant to be kind and affectionate. Overall, I think this is a book that likes its characters (the ones who aren’t evil) and that makes it easy for me to like the book. And the darkly comic aspects of it keep it from feeling like one of those treacly novels about quirky small-town people who have all the real knowledge and insight. O’Grady balances the light and dark really well, and that made this a satisfying read.