The older some artists grow, the less they need. Gabrielle Roy does without so much that her latest book has the mellow serenity of a still life. It contains no politics, no sex, few jokes, few changes of place, little violence and few complications. Its author has no fear of sentiment: “Oh, that boy!” she can write, defying us to smirk or sneer. “There’s still a tightening around my heart when I think of him!” She has no axes to grind, no games to play, nothing to give except love. The word is overused but no other word will do.
Children of My Heart is a group of stories and not, as its publishers claim, a novel. It inhabits the grey area between invention and autobiography; the unnamed narrator is a girl just out of normal school, a teacher in rural Manitoba near the start of the Depression. Gabrielle Roy was just such a teacher and she alone knows how closely the stories adhere to fact. Each of them centres on the delicate, wary relations between the girl and a pupil or two, as remembered or imagined more than 40 years later. The result is fiction as golden as one of its October sunsets: “sweetness and peace, or rather the occasional harmony found in nature as it huddles over its secret.”
The children themselves are often
poor, often troubled. A 10-year-old has to be the man of his farm; a younger child has no money to buy even the smallest Christmas present; an older boy turns from vicious rebellion to an awkward, groping, impossible love. His story, the last and longest, also cuts most deeply, for there the narrator confronts her own untidy emotions. Her teaching has lifted the boy from simple revolt to a lost, bewildered misery; success has brought pain in its wake. Were it not for Gabrielle Roy’s honesty, Children of My Heart might seem sugary and cloying.
Yet the honesty is untainted with bitterness. Near the end of the book, a local official asks the teacher, “Are you crazy, getting sad over a dump like this?” His tone is new and sour. “Another year or two with us and you’d have started to be like us. Keenness and fire are not lasting things. Life snuffs them out the way you bury a prairie fire.” The official might have wandered in from another fiction—As For Me and My House, perhaps. He sees buildings and humdrum boredom; she has worked with the children, and that meagre town can never be a dump. If Gabrielle Roy doesn’t shy away from poverty and illness, she refuses to let them break the spirit.
Novelist Roch Carrier has said that if he could take only a handful of Quebec books to a desert island Ces enfants de ma vie would be one of them. Those of us from the prairies might well want to bring Children of My Heart, lucidly translated from the French by Alan
Brown, to our own refuge. The lives and work of French Canadians are not limited by the borders of Quebec. And the work of Gabrielle Roy deserves to go beyond all borders. Mark Abley
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