The Low Down on life with Ottawa writer Brian Doyle

A scene from Up to Low based on a book by Ottawa writer Brian Doyle.

If you were a kid like Brian Doyle was, you might remember that trick of making yourself invisible in adult company. Sitting quietly and just listening gave you an entrée into the lives of your elders and the big, outside world that you would eventually become part of.

Doyle’s skill at doing that more than seven decades ago provided him invaluable fodder for his subsequent career as a fiction writer. Case in point: Up to Low, Janet Irwin’s stage adaptation of Doyle’s novel of the same name, which is at the National Arts Centre starting May 1.

Set in the 1950s, the story is about 12-year-old Tommy’s road trip with his father and mercurial family friend Frank to Low in the Gatineau Hills, where they’re bound for a cabin that Tommy hasn’t visited since his mother died. If you’ve read the book or if you saw the original version of the play when it debuted at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in 2015, you know the tale is a funny, sad and haunting snapshot of a long-ago Ottawa Valley, a story that Doyle says is “a little tale full of smaller tales.”

Brian Doyle

Doyle, who’s 83 this year and now lives in Chelsea, Quebec, made that same trip from his Ottawa home many times as a youngster. He remembers it as a vivid education. Stops at taverns along the way, for example, were de rigeur and they form part of the play’s backbone.

“They’d leave the kids in the car — people would be horrified now – and they’d go in and drink,” he says. “While you’re waiting, you’re observing and learning. Now and then you’d go in the tavern (with them) because the rules in Quebec in those days were pretty loose, and you could see the adults in their own milieu.”

And when those grown-ups, refreshed, clambered back into the car, he’d stay in quiet mode, behaving like he wasn’t there. He says it was a chance to see the adults being themselves, an opportunity custom-made for a boy who listened and watched very closely.

Turning what you observe into stories also informed Doyle’s childhood.

“We were brought up surrounded by people narrating all the time. It was the Ottawa Valley Scots/Irish/French culture, I guess. It was the air we breathed,” he says.

“I think I absorbed a kind of rhythm of thinking that I wasn’t even conscious of. I remember asking my Uncle Paddy what time it was. He takes out his watch and he says, ‘This isn’t my watch, but it’s half past four.’ So right away, I don’t care what time it is; I want to know where he got the watch. All I wanted was a fact but I’ve got a story. Looking back, it was multi-dimensional: nothing was simply this or that.”

Those stories, of course, become an indelible part of who we are. Doyle says he’s always liked the late American writer Jim Harrison’s oft-quoted words, “Death steals everything except our stories.”

In the case of Up to Low, which was published in 1982, the story includes a green-eyed girl named Bridget who carries unseen scars, a general store that sells everything from bait worms to rosaries, and a cavalcade of other characters, places and events.

Doyle drew on memories of people like his relatives as well as his literary imagination in constructing the characters. “The people I had in mind were such ordinary looking farmers, non-descript people you see in those old photos standing around old cars or leaning up against a barn or having a cigarette,” he says. “They looked so unremarkable.”

But when Doyle saw those characters on stage at Magnetic North three years ago, he was blown away. “It was almost like I’m looking at a kind of dream,” he says. “They look the way they deserve to look — heroic and funny and beautiful and sensitive.”

Seeing them like that, embodied by actors like Paul Rainville and Chris Ralph and Kristina Watt — all of whom are back, as is director Irwin and live musical accompaniment, for the NAC production — Doyle says he wished his long-gone relatives could have been there to see themselves “as they are in their souls.”

Doyle says that Up to Low, a story with deep personal roots in his past, remains important to him because it deals in part with cruelty and forgiveness, themes he’s always loved in literature and which have been part of his own life.

“That story is important to me personally, but I think an audience can take away their own personal experiences with cruelty and kindness.”

Up to Low is in the NAC’s Babs Asper Theatre May 1-19 (previews May 1-3; opening night, May 4). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787,

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.