Toronto: New Canadian Library, 2010, c1966.
I picked up this collection by a favourite writer when I was in the mood for something quiet and gentle. And as always, Gabrielle Roy delivered. But this collection also has a bit of an emotional edge, a strong and biting nostalgia and sorrow about the fact that we all age and all die, woven throughout each story.
All four stories focus on Christine, the main character from Street of Riches, which I also loved.
In the first,Christine is six years old when she is sent to spend time with her grandmother over the summer. Her grandmother, a stern woman, is getting forgetful. But on this visit, she makes Christine a doll, and in this long day of focused creativity she seems to be, to Christine, god-like in her ability to make something from nothing. Christine thinks, "For a long time I was haunted by the idea that it could not possibly be a man who made the world. But perhaps an old woman with extremely capable hands." It's all the more of a struggle for her, therefore, when her grandmother comes to live with her family a few years later, and is weaker every day, eventually nearing her end -- understanding that connection between the self as a young person such as herself and the self inherent in her grandmother is a point of maturing for her.
The second story continues with another relationship Christine, now 8, has with an elderly neighbour. He is a charming old man whom Christine finds compatible with her imaginative play -- he goes along with her pretend play and encourages her imagination. It's a long, hot, dry summer when they meet though, and eventually he tells her about Winnipeg Beach at the beautiful lake like an ocean, only a couple of hours away by train. Her mother agrees to let her take a day trip to see it alongside her friend (it was a more innocent time) and Christine and her elderly neighbour (in his 80s) have a day of revelations about life, eternity, and permanence/impermanence. All in Roy's calm, nostalgic style.
In the third, The Move, Christine is extremely eager to go along with a friend whose father is a mover, taking families and households from one little shack on the outskirts of Winnipeg to another. Her mother thinks this is sordid, but Christine sees it as romantic -- seeing people on the move, making new beginnings and so on. Though her mother says no, Christine sneaks out one morning to go along, and sees that the day's moving is indeed sordid. Sad, exhausting, and the promise of change unmet as the family they are moving goes from one unpalatable circumstance to another identical one.
And the last, title story, is perhaps the most moving. In this Christine is an adult, driving her mother to her uncle's for a summer visit. They get turned around on the highway and end up in the hills, a seeming mirage in the flat prairie of Manitoba. This recalls her mother's youth in Quebec to her, and Christine sees her mother as the young woman she once was before children and her move to the prairies. It's a bit unsettling, especially as they aren't sure how they got there or if they'd be able to return. A second visit the next year is nearly as satisfying, but a later one, their last, is unfulfilling -- her mother insists that they've missed their secret road, that they didn't pass by the ghost town of Altamont on the way. The impossibility of permanence, of being able to hold on to the ghostly nostalgia that Roy continually evokes in her stories, is presented as part of life and part of maturity. Christine's mother, in her second childhood, finds this distressing; their roles are now reversed, and Christine is the more pragmatic of the two, looking outward to her new life rather than back, like most of Roy's characters.
The female relationships in this book are so powerful, so deep and convincing. I loved the grandmother's story, with creative making lighting her up again in the midst of her loneliness and incipient dementia. She was strong and independent, and yet susceptible to life's disappointments as well. The mother-daughter relationship between Christine and her own mother is also deep and abiding. There is a closeness there that reverberates through every element of Christine's story.
As always there are lovely quotable bits -- for example:
And so we lived, rather like everyone else on the face of the earth, I imagine, little satisfied with the present, in constant expectation of the future, and often in regret for what was past. But thanks be to heaven that, whatever happens, there remain always, on either side of us, those two open doors.All in all, this is one of Roy's strongest books, for me. It holds together thematically and in style, and is really touching, with strong characterizations and a setting that is viscerally evoked. I really loved it.