Garden in the Wind / Gabrielle Roy; translated from the French by Alan Brown
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004, c1977.
This collection of stories really hit me. It's made up of these four titles:
A Tramp At The Door
Where Will You Go, Sam Lee Wong?
Garden in the Wind
Out of the four, only the first comes from Roy's own lived experience of being a Western Canadian Francophone. The other three take on different experiences - Chinese immigrants to small prairie towns, Doukhobours, and Ukrainian immigrants, respectively.
You'd think this wouldn't work - that there's no way she could enter into these very different lives. And there are problems, both in the way she refers to her characters (ie: Sam Lee Wong is "a Chinese") or the places (ie: it's always 'the Ukraine', not 'Ukraine') But I'm not sure whether much of this comes mostly from the fact that they were written in the 70s, because Roy's extreme empathy does illuminate much of the other storytelling. It's not perfect, by any means, but particularly in the title story I think she captures something essential.
The first story, A Tramp at the Door, follows the fortunes of a tramp who appears at the Trudeau family farm one day, and worms his way in by claiming he's a long lost cousin from Quebec. He tells stories of the homesick father's extended family, feeding the longing for family news that the isolated French settlers in Western Canada feel for their Quebec roots in all of Roy's work. He stays for a long time, working as a handyman, but then moves on and as the reader suspected, tries this on again with other French families. How the family reacts to this falsity is the true heart of the story, I think, and the conclusion is as bittersweet as expected from this author.
The middle two stories are well crafted, in Roy's quiet style. She represents the size and isolation of prairie towns/settlements very well, and in both of these stories the place of the outsider is often always as the outsider, one who can never break the code and really understand the place they've landed in. They are precise, sad and nostalgic. These stories are also a little uncomfortable for the modern reader, though, as the issues of race or culture and appropriation/representation are much more in the forefront now.
That said, the final and title story, Garden in the Wind, is beautiful, believable, and heart-breaking. The main character is a Ukrainian woman who still lives on her Saskatchewan farm many years after settling there.
Her children are grown and off to their respective adult lives in other prairie cities, and they are infrequent visitors, embarrassed by their old world parents. Stepan, her husband, is often drunk and often difficult. They haven't spoken to one another in years. Marta's reminiscence is the heart of the story, and as she speaks she shares that she is seriously ill. But why go to a doctor? Why have tests and have to make a fuss of the end of her life? Instead she releases her hold on life, in a way, and stops working and fretting, instead enjoying her flowers that she nurses in the dry and windy yard. She wishes that the stand of poplars beside the house was once again beautiful as it was when it was new and not overrun with broken down machinery and junk.
Somehow Stepan senses that there is something in the wind, and cleans the yard, tries to keep her flowers going, and ends up feeding her when she settles into bed. All this is so emotionally resonant and so real. I really believed that Marta was a Ukrainian immigrant - she sounds like the people in my own family history, as do all the permutations of her family history and her past. Roy captures the internal life of characters so different from herself, in the smallest and most personal ways.
This story left me emotionally wrung out. It's full of pathos but not sentimentality; Marta is clear eyed and practical, and yet loves the world so much. This story alone is worth reading this book, I feel.
It's probably clear that I'm really in tune with Gabrielle Roy's themes and her very particular style. If you also love this kind of nostalgic exploration of the past, of small histories passing out of memory, of beautifully wrought, quotable prose, you might like to try her stories out as well.