The Room with Five Walls: Trials of Victor Hoffman


119 pages
ISBN 1-896300-78-2
DDC C812'.54





Reviewed by Ian C. Nelson

Ian C. Nelson, Librarian Emeritus, former Assistant Director of
Libraries (University of Saskatchewan) and dramaturge (Festival de la
Dramaturgie des Prairies).


August 1967 marked the first mass murder in Canada. A year later Victor
Ernest Hoffman was found not guilty of the Shell Lake massacre by reason
of insanity. He had previously been held in a Saskatchewan asylum, from
which he was released with inadequate instruction to his parents about
the medication meant to stabilize his schizophrenic condition.

Barclay has taken the facts of this case from public documents and from
discussions with Hoffman’s defence counsel to create a remarkable
poetic drama in two acts in which she effectively gets into the head of
Hoffman both as a young man reliving his trial and as a 50-year-old
confined to an institution for the criminally insane where his world is
“a room with five walls.” She has also brought to her dramatic task
intimate knowledge of the mental health system (she is a past president
of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Saskatchewan Division;
founding chair of Saskatchewan’s Mental Health Advisory Council; and
editor-in-chief of Transitions) and the personal perspective of a mother
whose son was also diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

The excruciating facts are both heightened and tempered by Barclay’s
poetic imagery (distortions of the disturbed mind of the protagonist)
and by her juxtaposition of the elder Victor with his younger self and
various other players in this drama as the fifth wall of her title opens
up to a daily struggle for understanding and, if not sanity, at least
responsibility. The central question remains: “Why wasn’t he helped
as he should have been?” Among many questions Barclay brings to the
fore is a vexingly contemporary one about bullying. The poetry of her
treatment occasionally extends to the stage directions.

In every way, this is a provocative and gripping drama, one that is not
likely to be shelved as a mere piece of circumstance.


Barclay, Byrna., “The Room with Five Walls: Trials of Victor Hoffman,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 19, 2024,