Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy

A Montreal family deals with hopeless poverty at the outset of World War II

The LaCasse family, neer-do-well dad, Azarius, perpetually pregnant maman Rose-Anna, shallow pretty daughter Florentine, and sickly Daniel, as well as a host of other children, are forced to change lodgings every year because of their constant poverty. They live in Saint Henri, a slum of Montreal, at a time when Canada is emerging from the Depression, and sending boys overseas to fight for England and now defeated France.  Soon it becomes apparent to everyone that a soldier’s job has pay.  Florentine, the main financial support of her family, longs for pretty clothes and to be the boyfriend of handsome curt Jean Levesque. Rose-Anna wants her children to be happy, and also for a neat spacious house of her own. The plot of the story is just one awful thing happening after another.

It’s like a Quebecois Grapes of Wrath. The characters are the point here, carefully described, their modest longings. The novel consists of one character study after another, like beads on a necklace. (Or Rosary maybe?) I loved the mother Rose-Anna, she just trudges on through one appalling situation after the next. There's a wonderful scene where the whole hapless family takes a trip back to the farm where Rose-Anna grew up, for maple sugaring time. The descriptions are wonderful. Even the minor characters are well drawn, like the English nurse, Jenny, in Danny’s hospital. The ending definitely feels like there will be a sequel. However, this is not a heartwarming piece. The reader understands that there really is  not any hope.  All the characters are forever mired in poverty and bad judgment.

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