06 May 2019

A Brief Review of a Book Bought in Error

Exit Barney McGee
Claire Mackay
Richmond Hill, ON: Scholastic-TAB, 1979
146 pages

We've all been there. It's the dying minutes of a book sale, volunteers are exhausted, and you're encouraged to fill up a box for ten dollars... two dollars... whatever you'd care to donate. You scan the tables, scooping up anything remotely interesting, casting not so much as a glance. This is how I came to buy Exit Barney McGee, a title I read as Exit D'Arcy McGee. The fleeting glimpse of the cover image had me thinking it was a kid's time travel novel.


Exit Barney McGee is not a time travel novel, though kids today will find sentences like this old-fashioned, if not puzzling: "He dialled slowly, letting his finger travel backward with each number, muffling the insect buzz of the release."

Truth be told, I found the novel old-fashioned; not because my family had push-button phones in 1979, but because the story's beginning was all too familiar.

Thirteen-year-old Barney McGee was raised the only child of a single mother – his father having abandoned the family when he was a toddler – but he'd been happy enough. For ten years, it was just mother and child. When Barney grew older, he shouldered some of her burden with money earned through a paper route. Though a boy, he was very much the man of the house... until his mom met and married Mr Conrad, Barney's grade six teacher. Now, a year later, they've been joined by baby girl named Sarah.

Barney longs for the days when it was just him and his mom. The two used to go to the movies on Friday nights; now Mr Conrad takes her out for an evening of bridge with the school vice-principal and his wife.

Barney has had enough. He has a vague memory of a letter his father sent his mother, and rifles thorough his mother's lingerie drawer for a cache of letters. There he finds a scrawl sent from Toronto  by his dad. Ten years have passed, but never mind. A mouse named Saki joins the chip on Barney's shoulder as he sets out for the Hogtown address.

I was curious as to how things would develop. The beginning of Barney's story was so unoriginal that I anticipated some sort of twist. Sadly, Exit Barney McGee follows the road most travelled. There is – no surprise – a smidgen of comedy and adventure en route. A kindly lady offers a ride, but skids to a stop when Saki scurries across her pretty pink skirt. Deeper danger rears its head when Barney accepts a ride from Harry, a seventeen-year-old who is fleeing a botched mugging in a stolen car. Harry sees the runaway as his next victim, but the car runs off the road and Barney and Saki are thrown free.

Because Barney's is such a familiar story, I spoil nothing in revealing that the reunion between father and son falls far short of the boy's dreams.

From beginning to end, Exit Barney McGee was conventional; the only thing that stuck out was the entrance of kindly Nell Weatherston. A social worker, Nell has the task of dealing with Harry, who is revealed to be an orphan who has been abused by his uncles. Another of Nell's cases concerns an eleven-year-old who steals gifts for friends. At home, she is beaten by her patents. Nell, the police, and the hospital staff recognize that not all children are loved.  

Sadly, in today's Canada, this too seems old-fashioned.

Object and access: A slim, cheaply-produced paperback. My copy is a first printing. As far as I can tell, the novel was reprinted in 1987 and 1992. It benefits from five interior illustrations by David Simpson. Curiously, the cover references Toronto's Carleton Street, which is not mentioned in the novel. Used copies can be found online for as little as US$5.00. Mine is signed!


  1. Ha, ha! But it brought us this review and that made it very definitely worth it.

    1. Thank you, reese. In that case, it was well worth reading!

  2. Oh my. This does sound pretty dreadful. I think that Exit D'Arcy McGee sounds like a much better book ;)

    1. Doesn't Exit D'Arcy McGee sound great? I'm thinking that it would have more to do with his assassination than constitutional negotiations.

  3. Awww, I can see why you would feel that way, but at least you took it home from the sale. I read it as a kid, when there were not so many books about children living with a single mother, and took some comfort in that (my copy is signed too, dedicated even! *chuckles*) although it was not a favourite that I reread either.

    I'm guessing your lack-lustre reading experience means that you won't be rushing to find copies of her Mini-Bike Hero and Mini-Bike Racer now. :)

    1. Mini-Bike Hero and Mini-Bike Racer seem such investments in time. And then I'd have to read Mini-Bike Rescue.