|Children of my Heart / Gabrielle Roy|
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2000, c1977.
Each focuses on one student, though the telling illuminates a larger reality. The stories reveal glimpses of the lives of Vincento, Clair Bright, Nile, Demetrioff, André Pasquier and Mederic Eymard. From Vincento, a recent immigrant terrified to leave his gentle father at the beginning of school, to Mederic, who is in his late teens and old enough that he really shouldn't be at school anymore at all, this teacher sees it all.
Like most of Roy's writing, this is full of nostalgia and bittersweet observation. It's all remembering, a vision of the past. And while it's also full of love and sorrow and caring, somehow she always avoids the easy sentimental aspect in her stories.
I really enjoyed the story about Nile, a young Ukrainian who is both good-natured and a gifted singer. The teacher wants to uses his talents to cheer up and encourage the class, and then gets the idea to have him perform for the local nursing home. To get permission, she visits his mother. The description of her visit, and the location of their home, is both historically accurate and viscerally described. The pride in housekeeping that this woman shows for her shack is touching.
Most of these stories are anecdotes; they start and finish in the middle of things and there is no compelling arc to follow, other than that of the teacher's growing experience of many kinds of lives. The final story is a bit longer, and a bit more constructed, and funnily enough it was only when I got to it that I remembered that I'd read this collection years and years ago. Mederic stuck in my head when I first read this, and I found him again in this final story.
It's a likely tale; the late teenager still attends school, and becomes friendly with the teacher, after some posturing that she had to manage. But Mederic's father is an embarrassment to him, a crass man who only sees this young teacher as a civilized person that is a good match for Mederic -- as he's obviously too good for the other villagers. Mederic's father is the farthest thing from civilized, that's the irony. But Roy's gentle depiction of each character as they navigate this situation is balanced and compassionate.
Once again, I enjoyed Roy's work. When I am in the mood for gentle, thoughtful, and skillful writing about people's interior lives in Canadian settings, I reach for her books. Always recommended.