Life through novels

I love to read books and so when I learned that a distant relative of mine, Gabrielle Roy, was a novelist (a dream I’ve had since I was a child is to become a novelist myself), I had to read her most well-known book.

“The Tin Flute,” was written by Gabrielle Roy in 1947 in French. This bitter-sweet love story takes place in Montreal in 1942. The main characters are Florentine, Jean, Emmanuel, Azarius and Rose-Anna.

Florentine is the eldest daughter of poor working-class parents, Azarius and Rose-Anna Lacasse. She is in love with Jean, who is too ambitious to be seeking a wife, while his friend Emmanuel is in love with Florentine, wants to marry her, and has just enlisted in the army.

The tin flute refers to a toy that Daniel, the younger brother of Florentine, has asked his mother for, but which she feels they can’t afford, because they are too poor. Daniel is frail and sickly. Besides Daniel and Florentine, there are six other children in the family and Rose-Anna is pregnant again. Azarius is a carpenter by trade, but there’s no work and he’s a dreamer and can’t hold down a job. Rose-Anna makes a small income from sewing and cleaning and Florentine works as a waitress at a five-and-ten, bringing in the bulk of the family’s income. The oldest son has just enlisted in the army to help raise the income further.

Azarius and Rose-Anna’s daily lives are preoccupied by thoughts of money and how to earn enough. Florentine’s daily life is preoccupied by her love for Jean and the fact that she realizes he will probably never consider marrying her. She yearns to escape her current circumstances through a life of passion and romance.

The family lives in the neighborhood of Saint-Henri, situated along the dirty canal Lachine. It is historically where the tanneries were located and was primarily French-Canadian. It was at this point in time extremely poor.

Gabrielle Roy in 1945 with boys from Saint-Henri, the working-class neighborhood of Montreal where The Tin Flute takes place.

The author writes in a way that allows us to get into the hearts and minds of these people. The sadness of unemployment and poverty are extreme, but tied into the story are the hopes of the people and their desire to have a better life. Each of them are trying to escape their current situation.

My father grew up in Montreal, although not in Saint-Henri. I imagine my father’s economic situation was slightly better than that of the Lacasse family, although maybe not by much. He left Montreal in 1944 when he was 34-years-old.

Gabrielle Roy’s ancestors were Nicolas le Roy and Jeanne Lelièvre as are mine, but while my family is descended from their sons Nicolas and Noël, her ancestors are descended from their brother Guillaume. See the tree below. Her branch is on the left and ends with Gabrielle and her husband Marcel Carbotte.

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What I liked about this book was that it gave me a very good sense of the disadvantages of the poor working-class Canadians, especially the francophone population. Rose-Anna, for instance, came from the countryside and her family were farmers. She has fond memories of country life. While her country folk have plenty to eat (even with their large family), and live with little in the form of fashion or luxury, the family in the city has to scramble to eat and clothe themselves, because everything costs money. In the country you can barter and grow food yourself. Poverty doesn’t hit you quite as hard.

I also got a sense of what my father wanted to leave behind when he left Montreal in 1944. There is a scene at Emmanuel’s middle-class home where the family is throwing him a party before he leaves for Europe to fight in the war. The differences between Emmanuel’s family life and that of Florentine are striking. The worries of his parents are around their son doing something stupid to compromise his economic and social advantage by marrying a girl from a poor family. Of course, they want their children to maintain upward mobility. While the poor family’s daily worries are how to get clothing for the children so that they can actually go to school, or how to save up enough for the rent they’ll need when their lease is up.

These differences, between life in the country, in the city and between working- and middle-class are made quite clear in the novel. It drives home the extremely difficult and harsh reality of city life if you are poor. I can only hope that my father and grandparents were spared those worries.

As for my great-grandparents, however, they did live near the tanneries in Quebec, in the working-class neighborhood of St. Roch. I know they suffered. My grandfather’s siblings didn’t all make it to adulthood and neither did all of his aunts and uncles. They worked in the tanneries and shoe factories. Many were uneducated or only had basic education. The story of Rose-Anna is recognizable in the lives of my great-grandfather Francois Philippe Roy and his father David Roy, who had moved from Beauce to Quebec in the 1850’s.

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