Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Tin Flute: Gabrielle Roy

The Tin Flute is a classic Canadian novel, first published in French as Bonheur d'occasion. The book tells the story of the Lacasse family in the St. Henri area in Montreal, during World War II. They are poor, and only the oldest daughter, Florentine, is working. Eugene, the oldest brother, has joined the military. It took me a while to get into the story, but about halfway into the book it took hold of me and I could not stop reading.

This is how the story begins:
Toward noon, Florentine had taken to watching out for the young man who, yesterday, while seeming to joke around, had let her know he found her pretty.
The fever of the bazaar rose in her blood, a kind of jangled nervousness mingled with the vague feeling that one day in this teeming store things would come to a halt and her life would find its goal. It never occurred to her to think she could meet her destiny anywhere but here, in the overpowering smell of caramel, before the great mirrors hung on the wall with their narrow strips of gummed paper announcing the day’s menu, to the summary clicking of the cash register, the very voice of her impatience. Everything in the place summed up for her the hasty, hectic poverty of her whole life in St. Henri.
The story centers around Rose-Anna, the mother, and Florentine. With eight children in the family, Rose-Anna is again pregnant. Her youngest child, Daniel, is in very ill health. The father, Azarius, is usually unemployed, a dreamer, always leaving one job for a "better" opportunity and spending most of his time away from home talking with a group of men, young and old, about the state of the world.

Florentine is a waitress in a restaurant in the back of a Five and Ten store in her neighborhood. She meets Jean Lévesque, a customer, and falls for him, although he is arrogant and aloof. She is desperate to escape from her life in poverty. Later she meets Emmanuel, a friend of Jean's, who loves her while she is still obsessed with Jean.

The story is beautifully written. In the first portion of the novel I was impatient with the slow pace and the introspection of the characters. As I became more involved in the pain and sadness and frustrations of the family members, I was pulled into the narrative.

This is a story of war and those who are affected, the Canadian home front, and the pain of poverty. There is so much more to this book than I can describe here, but not without revealing the later parts of the story, and I think each reader should discover all of it on their own.

I found the story depressing although I am sure not everyone would feel that way. Yet, I am very glad I read this book and I highly recommend it.

The Tin Flute was Gabrielle Roy's first novel. Nine more novels followed, published between 1950 and 1982.

Brian Busby of The Dusty Bookcase introduced me to this book, suggesting it two years ago for a World War II reading challenge. I did not get to it until this year. I am grateful that he mentioned it.


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Publisher:   McClellan & Stewart, 2009 (orig. pub. 1945)
Length:      400 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Translated by:  Alan Brown
Setting:      Montreal, Canada, 1940
Genre:       Fiction, Classic
Source:     I purchased this book.



12 comments:

  1. TracyK: Thanks for an interesting review. Roy was a powerful writer.

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    1. I agree, Bill. I will be reading more books by her, I am sure.

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  2. I don't think I'd have the patience for this one, despite the good writing.

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    1. Much as I would recommend this, Rick, I am sure it is not for everyone. But once I got past the halfway point, I could not stop reading.

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  3. This sounds like an interesting look into the psychology and culture of that time and place, Tracy. And I always appreciate it when a larger story is told through the eyes of the people who live through that story. I'm glad you found that persisting paid off.

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    1. You know I always love books set around World War II, Margot, and this one also is about how the depression affected people. Very worthwhile read.

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  4. Did you mention this one recently as a prospect? I think I looked it up then. And I think thought it sounded rather lowering to the spirits...

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    1. I listed it in my February reads, Moira, and I think you did say you would check it out. It is depressing and sad. I just finished On the Beach, and The Tin Flute was much more depressing than that. But I was glad I read it, in the end.

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  5. Hmm, not one that really appeals to me. I'm glad you liked it though, Tracy.

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  6. She's a writer whose works I've read through almost entirely (13 of them for one entire year of the Canadian Book Challenge). This is one of my favourites. I do know what you mean, about how the ending could be taken as depressing, but I took it more as "they've come through all this and they'll continue to get through". I've just finished her autobiography for the challenge and if you are curious about the writer's life you might enjoy that too.

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    1. I will check out your reviews for other books by Roy at your blog. I do want to read more of her books. And I will look into the autobiography too. That does sound interesting. Thanks for commenting.

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