"The Tin Flute" by Gabrielle Roy
Right now on my night stand — in addition to the painkilling rub, the clock, the notebook, the pencil and the detective story, currently an Inspector Maigret, courtesy of Georges Simenon? Let’s see. A book on the aging brain. A limited-edition chapbook of poems called “Silence,” by my cousin, Janet Barkhouse. A historical novel about the misdeeds of 14th-century French kings, by Maurice Druon. (I’ve read it, but it’s still on the night stand. Such things linger.) And a stack of books by Gabrielle Roy, the Franco-Manitoban writer who was a huge best seller in both France and North America in the late 1940s with her novel, “Bonheur d’Occasion,” translated as “The Tin Flute.” This is a gritty story about a working-class girl in Montreal in the wartime ’40s who makes the best she can of her meager romantic chances and her meager wardrobe, as she navigates a romance with an attractive Lothario but settles for the steady guy who loves her despite her calculating eyes. Why is that stack of Gabrielle Roy books there? Because I’m writing an essay about her for inclusion in a forthcoming book about the Francophone contribution to North America. By coincidence, a book by Gabrielle Roy was the set text in my final year in high school, in the 1950s. That book was “La Petite Poule d’Eau” (“The Little Water Hen,” the name of a river), translated rather infelicitously as “Where Nests the Water Hen,” which makes it sound Victorian and poetic. Which it isn’t. We studied French then in the old-fashioned way — sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase — so selected portions of this book are etched on my brain. Gabrielle Roy is among several Canadian woman writers of the 20th century who emerged from unlikely backgrounds to become internationally known in their day — L. M. Montgomery, Mazo de la Roche, Gwethalyn Graham, Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro among them. I’m very much enjoying learning more about Gabrielle Roy’s life story, which in some ways was very much like mine.