Barfoot, Joan 1946-

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BARFOOT, Joan 1946-


Born May 17, 1946, in Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada; daughter of Robert (a salesperson and farmer) and Helen (a teacher; maiden name, Mackinnon) Barfoot. Education: University of Western Ontario, B.A. (English), 1969.


Home—286 Cheapside St., London, Ontario N6A 2A2, Canada. Agent—c/o Bella Pomer, 22 Shallmar Blvd., PH2, Toronto, Onmtario M5N 2Z8, Canada. E-mail[email protected].


Windsor Star, Windsor, Ontario, Canada, reporter and religion editor, 1967-69; Mirror Publications, Toronto, Ontario, feature and news writer, 1969-73; Toronto Sunday Sun, Toronto, 1973-75; London Free Press, London, Ontario, 1976-79, 1980-94, current affairs columnist, 1997-2000.


Writer's Union of Canada, PEN Canada.


Books in Canada Award for first novel, 1978, for Abra; Marian Engel Award, 1992; shortlisted, Trillium Award, 2001; longlisted, Man Booker Prize, 2002.


Abra (novel), McGraw-Hill Ryerson, (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1978, published in England as Gaining Ground, Women's Press, 1980.

Dancing in the Dark (novel), Macmillan of Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1982.

Duet for Three (novel), Macmillan of Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1985.

Family News (novel), Macmillan of Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1989.

Plain Jane (novel), Macmillan of Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1992.

Charlotte and Claudia Keeping in Touch (novel), Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.

(Editor) Fred and Norah Egener, A Time Apart: Letters of Love and War, Ginger Press (Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada), 1995.

Some Things about Flying (novel), Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1997.

Getting Over Edgar (novel), Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1999.

Critical Injuries (novel), Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001.

Barfoot's writings have been translated into several languages, including French, German, Italian, and various Scandinavian tongues.


Dancing in the Dark was adapted for film.


Luck, a novel.


During the last quarter of the twentieth century, Canadian author Joan Barfoot earned a reputation as a talented novelist. In such works as Abra, Dancing in the Dark, Getting Over Edgar, and Critical Injuries, she explores regions of the human psyche and heart with an acuity appreciated by readers and noted by critics, some of whom have compared her favorably to American novelist Anne Tyler and Canadian Carol Shields.

Barfoot grew up in Owen Sound, Ontario, where she cut her teeth on the Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables and other L. M. Montgomery stories. "They were about girls who had spunk and individuality," Barfoot remembered in a Toronto Star article by Ken Adachi. "Later, of course, I read Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro because they told stories about people who really exist. I come from the same sort of country as Alice Munro; when I read her books I feel I know her places and her characters." After earning a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Western Ontario, Barfoot worked as a reporter and editor at a handful of Canadian newspapers. As a journalist she demonstrated an ability for capturing telling details, a talent she put to use in her novels. She began her first novel, Abra, while working for the Toronto Sun and finished it while employed by the Free Press in London, Ontario.

In 1979 Barfoot burst onto the literary scene with Abra, a tale about a middle-class woman who abandons her husband and children to live a reclusive life in rural Canada. The novel earned critical acclaim, as well as a Books in Canada Award for the best first novel. Enthusiasts of the novel include Books inCanada and Toronto Star critic Sheila Fischman, who noted that by writing with "intelligence, sensitivity, and inventiveness," Barfoot was "able to take what has become a hackneyed theme and make it new." London Tribune reviewer Kathryn Buckley reported that although Abra "reads as the egotistic and heartless escape of a possessive neurotic from life and responsibility," the book is "written with honesty and sincerity."

According to another Books in Canada reviewer, Douglas Hill, Abra is "tough, complex, and convincing in the emotional truth it delivers." Even with such accolades, reviewers were not unanimous in their assessments. For example, Canadian Literature contributor Miriam Waddington found Abra lacking in emotional honesty as portrayed by Abra's rationalizations of her problem—the inability to find satisfying emotional relationships in a provincial, violent society. So too did critic David Godfrey, who questioned the plausibility of the situation, writing in Books in Canada that the novel suffers from "psychological unbelievability." Despite the novel's perceived flaws in the characterization and morality of Abra, Waddington determined that "Barfoot presents the reader with a very real problem." She continued, "I can't believe in Abra's premises or her solutions, but Barfoot's novel convinces me of the reality of the problem."

Barfoot followed Abra with Dancing in the Dark. This tale of a perfectionist housewife who murders her husband and is institutionalized in a mental hospital is told through the first-person narration of the housewife. Screenwriter and director Leon Marr adapted the novel as a film starring Martha Henry in the title role. Barfoot was pleased with Marr's efforts and gratified to see her work appear in another medium.

During the mid-and late-1980s, Barfoot broadened the focus of her novels to include the views of members of extended families and lovers in such titles as Duet for Three and Family News. Using flashbacks and monologues, Barfoot explores the relationships among three generations of women in Duet for Three, "a lonely, rare novel," according to Library Journal writer Janet Boyarin Blundell. Toronto Star reviewer Judith Fitzgerald also found much to like about the novel, including Barfoot's characterizations and use of details: "From the first sentence, Barfoot's eye for detail and ear for rhythm rings remarkably true." "It's a first-rate novel by any standard," Fitzgerald concluded.

Barfoot returned to a more intimate scale with her 1992 offering, Plain Jane. About a lonely library worker who begins a correspondence with an incarcerated man, the plot of Plain Jane hinges on the question of what Jane will do when the convict is released from prison and wants to meet her. According to Toronto Star reviewer Geraldine Sherman, although the suspenseful plot "smooths over most reservations about the writer's intrusive style and her pathetic central character," the conclusion is "artificial" and begs the question of "how the story really ends."

While entering middle age herself, Barfoot began to pen novels about middle-aged characters. These works include her 1999 novel, Getting Over Edgar, which a Toronto Star entertainment writer described as a "splenetic comic tour de force" of mid-life crisis. The plot of the novel revolves around Gwen's attempts to reinvent herself after the accidental death of her philandering husband, Edgar. Thus, the novel begins with Gwen having a one-night stand with a young bartender named David, and it continues in alternating chapters to tell each character's story after that momentary junction in their lives. The Toronto Star reviewer likened the novel's tone to that of someone suffering from bipolar disorder—full of highs and lows—and found David's character to be better developed than Gwen's or Edgar's. Yet these characters are dynamic and treated with "an affectionate optimism always tempered by perceptiveness and clear-sighted wit," according to Margaret Walters in the London Sunday Times. Ali Smith, writing in the Scotsman, asserted that its structure "keeps this novel compelling" until finally the "taken-for-granted stereotypical characters are redeemed as real and vulnerable and complex people after all." "Joan Barfoot's novel should be welcomed for adding to the limited number of rebellious females in fiction," concluded London Sunday Times critic Amanda Craig.

Having successfully used the alternating-viewpoint structure in Getting Over Edgar, Barfoot used it again in her much-acclaimed Critical Injuries. As in the former novel, the two main characters are an older woman and a younger man; yet this time both characters are not finding their way toward more fulfilling lives, but rather dealing with the aftermath of serious injuries. When Isla stops in at an ice scream store for her favorite treat, she is accidentally shot by Roddy, a teenager who tries to rob the store. The bulk of the novel details in alternating chapters the repercussions of the robbery: the critical injuries—physical and psychological—to both protagonists. The work elicited comments from reviewers, of whom several praised the novel's tone, plot, characters, and setting. Dubbing Critical Injuries "a serious work of literature… and a pleasure to read," Craig, writing again in the Sunday Times, praised Barfoot's "unsentimental voice [that] encompasses humour, anger, power and delicacy." Likewise, New Leader reviewer Lynne Sharon Schwartz described the novel as "a sophisticated, appealing story of family life put to the most grueling test." Yet Schwartz deemed Isla's husband, Lyle, "almost too noble to be true," and found Barfoot better able to portray the middle-aged Isla than the teenager Roddy. Stylistically, the "writing is by turns lyrical and biting, complex and simplistic," commented Phyllis Richardson in the Times Literary Supplement. Whether or not the ending is successful was open to debate. As Lindsay Duguid concluded in the London Sunday Times, "Sometimes the solutions to hard problems may seem easily won, but this is an honest book with a saving wry humour."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 18, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.

Howells, Coral Ann, Private and Fictional Words: Canadian Women Novelists of the 1970s and 1980s, Methuen (London, England), 1987.

Moss, John, ed. A Reader's Guide to the Canadian Novel, 2nd ed., McClelland and Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1987.

Thiersch, Antje, The Reality B(ey)ond: Triviality and Profundity in the Novels of Joan Barfoot, Galda & Wilch Verlag (Cambridge, MA), 2002.


Belles Lettres, May, 1988, review of Duet for Three, p. 6.

Booklist, December, 1986, review of Duet for Three, p. 546; July, 2002, Melanie C. Duncan, review of Critical Injuries, p. 1820.

Books, December, 1997, review of Some Things about Flying, p. 19.

Books & Bookmen, June, 1986, review of Duet for Three, p. 27.

Books in Canada, April, 1979, Dave Godfrey and Douglas Hill, reviews of Abra, pp. 3-4; January, 1980, Paul Stuewe, review of Abra, p. 20; October, 1982, review of Dancing in the Dark: A Literary Tour de Force that Stunningly Portrays a Housewife's Descent into Madness and Murder, p. 19; October, 1985, review of Duet for Three, p. 23; October, 1989, review of Family News, p. 26; May, 1992, review of Plain Jane, p. 42.

Canadian Book Review Annual, 1994, review of Charlotte and Claudia Keeping in Touch, p. 150; 1997, review of Some Things about Flying, p. 171; 2000, review of Getting Over Edgar, p. 138.

Canadian Forum, July, 1990, review of Family News, p. 31.

Canadian Literature, spring, 1980, Miriam Waddington, "The New Woman," pp. 101-105; winter, 1992, Family News, p. 157.

Chatelaine, October, 2001, Bonnie Schiedel, review of Critical Injuries, p. 16.

CM: Canadian Materials for Young People, January, 1990, review of Family News, p. 24.

Essays on Canadian Writing, spring, 1995, review of Plain Jane, p. 154.

Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 10, 1999, review of Getting Over Edgar, p. D12; September 29, 2001, review of Critical Injuries, p. D10; November 24, 2001, review of Critical Injuries, p. D15.

Hungry Mind Review, November, 1989, review of Family News, p. 40.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1986, review of Duet for Three, p. 1462; May 1, 2002, review of Critical Injuries, p. 589.

Library Journal, December, 1986, Janet Boyarin Blundell, review of Duet for Three, p. 132; June 15, 2002, Nancy Pearl, review of Critical Injuries, p. 92.

London Tribune (London, Ontario, Canada), July 18, 1980, Kathryn Buckley, review of Abra.

Maclean's, October 18, 1982, review of Dancing in the Dark, p. 76; October 21, 1985, review of Duet for Three, p. 85.

Ms., February, 1987, review of Duet for Three, p. 19.

New Leader, July-August, 2002, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, review of Critical Injuries, pp. 27-28.

New Statesman, March 21, 1986, review of Duet for Three, p. 28.

New York Times Book Review, April 5, 1987, review of Duet for Three, p. 19.

Publishers Weekly, October 24, 1986, review of Duet for Three, p. 57; October 30, 1987, review of Duet for Three, p. 65.

Quill & Quire, September, 1982, review of Dancing in the Dark, p. 58; September, 1985, review of Duet for Three, p. 78; April, 1992, review of Plain Jane, p. 23; October, 1994, review of Charlotte and Claudia Keeping in Touch, p. 32; August, 1997, review of Some Things about Flying, p. 30; March, 1999, review of Getting Over Edgar, p. 60; September, 2001, review of Critical Injuries, p. 44.

Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), August 7, 1999, Ali Smith, review of Getting Over Edgar, p. 11.

Sunday Times (London, England), September 5, 1999, Margaret Walters, review of Getting Over Edgar, p. 8; October 21, 1999, Amanda Craig, "Good Is Bad, but Bad Is Better," p. 40; March 30, 2002, Amanda Craig, "A Time to Reflect," p. 15; April 21, 2002, Lindsay Duguid, "Miracles Can Happen," p. 45.

Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 1980, Patricia Craig, "Choosing to Live Alone," p. 450; September 27, 1985, review of Dancing in the Dark, p. 1070; July 11, 1986, review of Duet for Three, p. 766; April 5, 2002, Phyllis Richardson, "Taking the Road to Self-Improvement."

Toronto Star (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), October 13, 1985, Judith Fitzgerald, "An Intense Novel of Ties That Bind," p. A15; April 27, 1986, Ken Adachi, "'Wonderful!' Says Author about Film of Her Book," p. B7; April 4, 1992, Geraldine Sherman, review of Plain Jane, p. K13; September 24, 1994, Betty Jane Wylie, "Between Friends," p. J21; March 28, 1999, "The Act of Living Fully; Joan Barfoot Explores the Second Chances Extraordinary Events Can Offer," p. E1.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 18, 1980, Kathryn Buckley, review of Abra, p. 9; March 15, 1987, review of Duet for Three, p. 6.


Joan Barfoot Home Page, (March 28, 2005).*