Monday, July 11, 2016

Street of Riches

It is very quotable. All those flags are passages
to be copied out...
Street of Riches / Gabrielle Roy; translated by Henry Binsse.
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967, c1957.
158 p.
(New Canadian Library No. 56)

I've always loved Gabrielle Roy's elegaic, quiet writing style. Her Road Past Altamont or Children of My Heart have been favourites of mine for years. But I'd never read this one before. First published as Rue Deschambault in 1955, it won the Governor General's Award in 1957 with its English appearance.

This tells us the story of Christine, one sibling among many. Their family lives in St. Boniface, Manitoba, but her father is often away because of his work as a settlement agent. When he is home, he is quiet and withdrawn, having spent all his gregariousness on his settlers. Christine thinks that if only her parents acted when together as they did when apart, everyone would have been happier. However, Roy's melancholic storytelling holds sway and there is much reflection and contemplation of what life had been like and what it could have been like, through Christine's eyes.

The book is a collection of 18 episodes that make up Christine's nostalgic remembrances of things past. She is a bookish girl, and is eventually directed toward teaching as a career. Much of this book is apparently based on Roy's life, lightly fictionalized. There are stories of her father's work, of her own childhood illness, and most memorably, of a trip her mother arranged to take back to Quebec, which necessitated placing her children into various care situations and taking only Christine with her, all done while their father was away. His anger upon their return was overcome by all the stories of the old village and their relatives, and how things were changed or not changed -- nostalgia and the evanescent sense of the past once again wins over the melancholic Roy character.

It's a calm, elegaic piece of work; beautifully descriptive, as is most of Roy's work. The viewpoint of Christine, a sensitive girl, means that we see moments of delicate beauty -- even those that come as she lies motionless on the porch recovering from her long illness and beauty is all in her perceptions. We see a deep empathy toward the emotional lives of others, especially her mother, and an understanding of her choices in retrospect. The landscape is important as well, with Christine describing the soul of her Manitoba setting. 

The setting, 1920s Manitoba, also means that among the bittersweet stories of Christine's memories lie nuggets of historical content -- ideas of immigration, multiculturalism, women's roles and more.  They show up naturally, and might even be unnoticed at times -- but Roy makes the observations. 

This is a beautiful read that I recommend if you are in the mood for some slower paced realism, tinged with a haze of nostalgia (plus some fabulous descriptions of everyday lives including clothing & sewing). Readers who enjoy artistic writing and deeply developed characters should enjoy this book.

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Further Reading:

Although I'd hesitate to compare Roy to LM Montgomery, much of Christine's attachment to place and memory reminds me of Pat Gardiner in Montgomery's Pat of Silver Bush & Mistress Pat. The writing styles can be equally flowery, but have a different tone. LMM is less dreamy, and usually includes some humour in her writing.

Another book which is an atmospheric rendering of a small Western town, though this time in British Columbia in the 1930s, is Ethel Wilson's Hetty Dorval. It also features narration from the point of view of a young girl, Frankie Burnaby, who is telling the story from her own older perspective. Other than this slant and the poetic writing, however, the books diverge in plot and Wilson's has a relatively more scandalous storyline.

4 comments:

  1. Melwyk, you've succeeded again--this book sounds like a true gem! Lovely review!

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    1. It is a gem! Good description - it has many facets & it is beautiful :)

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  2. Thank you for this. You've inspired me to pick up my copy of Roy's The Cashier... bought in 1985 and not opened until last night!

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    1. The Cashier is a book that is a little different than many of her others - I hope you will find Roy a fascinating read.

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