Joan Barfoot Essay - Critical Essays

Barfoot, Joan


Barfoot, Joan 1946–

A Canadian novelist, Barfoot is the author of Abra, which won the 1978 Books in Canada Award for the best first novel.

Dave Godfrey

[Abra suffers from psychological unbelievability]…. Barfoot's heroine is a woman who leaves husband and family to go live on her own in a bush farm. On the first page, Abra can hardly remember her own name. By chapter three, with the arrival of Katie, her daughter, she is remembering detail after detail of her own departure and arrival. As current as the subject matter is, I never really could let myself match the novel to the real world after that initial disruption of belief. The novel is almost totally linear, with careful attention to the journalistic surface, while, supposedly, Abra is hooking up with the deeper powers of nature, contentment and wisdom. This process of change is not matched by any elements of the form whatsoever, so that although the novel is cast in the first person, it still reads as though Abra is being discussed and described, remembered and measured, rather than experienced. (p. 4)

Dave Godfrey, "Fairest of the Fair" by Sheila Fischman, Dave Godfrey, Douglas Hill, and Dave Simpson, in Books in Canada, Vol. 8, No. 4, April, 1979, pp. 3-4.∗

Douglas Hill

I'm excited by how good Abra is. Thinking it to be yet another version of the woman-flees-to-the-woods-in-search-of-identity business, I wasn't prepared to be impressed. But Abra is tough, complex, and convincing in the emotional truth it delivers.

It's a slow-moving book, dangerously so; it tells an unspectacular story deliberately, with pauses for reflection, analysis, and revision. The narrator is in the process of coming alive, not so much from neurotic depression as from numbness. Releasing her memories is slow work; the book tingles with perceptions as the blood flows in. Abra's voice is remarkable—muted, inward, perfectly natural, responding slowly to the rhythms of the seasons and the surroundings. It's the voice of a woman who has never talked to herself.

Abra is about the relation of guilt, faith, and joy, about doing and being. It has none of the self-conscious stylistic or structural excesses of [other first novels]…. Abra merely tries to prepare some hard questions carefully, and suggest necessarily partial answers truthfully, without flinching. (p. 4)

Douglas Hill, "Fairest of the Fair" by Sheila Fischman, Dave Godfrey, Douglas Hill, and Dave Simpson, in Books in Canada, Vol. 8, No. 4, April, 1979, pp. 3-4.∗

Paul Stuewe

A woman who abandons husband, children, and a middle-class lifestyle to do her own thing is the protagonist of Joan Barfoot's Abra … and her serious treatment of a not-unfamiliar contemporary situation earned my respect if not my affection. The subject is one that obviously engages the author's thought and experience in the deepest possible way, but putting it in the form of a novel has not worked well: the dialogue and interior monologue are stiff and unconvincing; and the action proceeds through a series of stereotyped scenes that seem to have been imposed rather than organically nurtured. In the absence of literary graces one concentrates on the theme of woman's liberation, and finds a number of intelligent reflections that might have made a superior non-fiction book; but as a novel it's a disappointing example of how a strong thesis doesn't necessarily make for powerful fiction.

Paul Stuewe, "On the Racks: 'Abra'," in Books in Canada, Vol. 9, No. 1, January, 1980, p. 20.

Miriam Waddington

[Abra] is a didactic novel, and deals more successfully with ideas than people. Even the name Abra is significant, suggesting as it does Abracadabra, an ancient cabbalistic configuration of letters that was supposed to cure fevers. (p. 102)

[Abra inherits] enough money to buy a remote country property where she can hole up with garden, books, and birds. In this way she eliminates all social contact, and with it, all conflict, pain, and responsibility.

Who doesn't recognize this fantasy? Every child dreams of such utopian omnipotence. He will run away to the forest…. And no messy human relationship will ever touch, dominate, disappoint, or reject him again. Even better than Robinson Crusoe. He had a footprint to contend with.

Abra finds no footprints in her retreat. Her withdrawal is complete and represents the furthest extreme of fearfulness, which, Barfoot implies—unconsciously I think—is the inevitable result of the pain and horror we must all endure in the anonymity and violence of today's social living….

What does Abra's long withdrawal from social life and her return to nature really signify? Abra's abandonment of her children, her lack of guilt, her rationalization of her problems, are not in the least convincing. We are asked to believe in the cool imperturbability of her nature on the one hand, and in her sensitive passion for willow trees on the other. Most...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Patricia Craig

[Abra Phillips, the heroine of Gaining Ground, published in the United States and Canada as Abra] chooses, without obvious motivation, to cut herself off from all the social props supposed to enrich a woman's daily existence….

The life of a recluse has always been considered a valid temptation for a man, properly appealing to some romantic strain in the masculine temperament, whereas the woman living alone in the middle of nowhere is typically a witch or an outcast—at any rate, an oddity. Abra strongly repudiates the idea that she may be mad; what has overtaken her is not a "breakdown" but its opposite, a healing up…. The novel succeeds in communicating the charms of solitary living (sitting in front of a log fire, wrapped in a patchwork quilt), though it doesn't fail to stress the powers of endurance required to carry it through….

Joan Barfoot has resisted the impulse to turn all the small disasters, the wrongs and burdens and resentments of home life, into a comedy of bad manners or forgivable errors. To document recovery of spirits, to indicate the resources available to worldly and ironic wives, is the business of many clever and entertaining novelists. Joan Barfoot's purpose is more serious and radical; she is questioning assumptions about sanity and "proper" behaviour….

The problem involved in creating sympathy for an absconding mother (a figure in romantic fiction no...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Kathryn Buckley

Abra in Joan Barfoot's Gaining Ground Gets Away From It All after nine years with the aid of a legacy and a single-minded determination, leaving husband, son and daughter without warning or explanation. But nine years of tilling the soil, solitariness and roughing it with all mod cons, and annual bouts of gothically romantic fever fail to equip her for returning to the real world.

Daughter Kate thinks her selfish and crazy, and tells Mum a few home truths which are more convincing than all the self-indulgent wallowing in nature which is Abra's idea of fulfilment and inner peace.

Written with honesty and sincerity, what is intended as the story of a gesture of renunciation...

(The entire section is 160 words.)