When Gabrielle Roy died of a heart attack last week at 74, Canada lost one of its most distinguished, original and widely read writers at a time when her work was gaining renewed attention.Winner of a Canada Council Medal for outstanding cultural achievement and the recipient of three Governor General’s Awards, she was the author of nine works of fiction. Still, she was best known for her first book, The Tin Flute (1945), a sombre novel about working-class life in Montreal. Recently adapted for the screen in both English and French, The Tin Flute was Canada’s official entry at the Moscow Film Festival last week and will be released nationwide this fall.
The youngest of 11 children, Roy was born in the French-speaking enclave of St. Boniface, Man., where she began to write stories when she was 12. She taught in an assortment of Prairie schools, studied drama in Europe and worked as a journalist in wartime Montreal. The empathy she showed for working-class people in her feature ar-
ticles was even more evident in The Tin Flute. When the novel was published it became an international best seller and won the coveted Prix Femina award in France. In 1950, Roy and her husband, Dr. Marcel Carbotte, finally settled in Quebec City. Publicity-shy, she refused to let success spoil the freshness of her perceptions or the lucidity of her style. Her last published work of fiction, Children of My Heart (1978), was remarkably direct in its portrayal of innocence, and at the time of her death she was working on her memoirs. Recent photographs of the writer show a strong, heroic countenance that recalls the beautiful description of her mother in Roy’s autobiographical novel Street of Riches'. “Upon her face her memories were like birds in full flight.”
No French-Canadian writer has ever touched the hearts of so many people across Canada. Roy’s settings may partly account for her wide readership—such books as Where Nests the Water Hen and The Road Past Altamont lovingly evoke Western Canada. But her popularity also pays tribute to
her lasting faith in human nature. Only a few modern writers, notably Isaac Bashevis Singer, could match her gift of portraying warmth without sentimentality, joy without delusion. Even when her work described alienation and loneliness, it also reached out in hope. As she observed in her novel The Cashier, “the only assurance on earth comes from that tendernesá for human beings which goes furthest beyond the bounds of reason.” In her best writing, Roy revealed the radiance and the inexplicable power of goodness. —MARK ABLEY
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