The Tin Flute is Gabrielle Roy’s first and best-known novel. Considered by many critics to be one of the greatest works of French Canadian literature, it won numerous prizes, including Canada’s prestigious Governor-General’s Award and France’s distinguished Prix Femina. Roy began her writing career as a journalist. Her meticulous description of the St. Henri slum in Montreal is based on her observations for a series of journal articles she wrote about the social and economic crises generated by the city’s growing industrialization.
Roy’s novel is especially important in the development of French Canadian fiction because it marks a turning point in the depiction of the province of Quebec, which had been portrayed by earlier writers as rural, traditional, and inward-looking. By contrast, The Tin Flute, whose English title is taken from the name of a child’s toy—symbolizing the repressed longings of deprived people—presents a grittily realistic panorama of urban life with the dilemmas that threaten to overwhelm French Canadians at a transformative time—when Canada was emerging from the economic hardships of the Great Depression and plunging into the global turmoil of World War II. Critics of the work have especially praised Roy for her capturing of the stark contrast between the poor, decaying environment of Montreal’s French Canadian slum and the orderly, manicured world of the city’s Westmount district—a district inhabited by the affluent Anglophone bankers and industrialists who helped to build the socioeconomic system that has oppressed Quebec’s working classes.
The power of Roy’s storytelling in The Tin Flute springs chiefly from the direct narrative style used to portray the characters and their environment. The sights, sounds, and smells of the places where the protagonists play out their emotional lives—neighborhood streets, restaurants, stores, bars, houses, and churches—are portrayed with near-clinical detail and with striking, evocative imagery. The narrative follows a conventional linear plot structure that traces the stories of individuals in a chronological...
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A novel of life among destitute Canadiens in Montréal of the Great Depression. Yet a book that brims with life, and ends with optimism.
The description of the snow driven before the wind as a dancer pursued by a cracking whip was marvellous, graphic, exciting, and accurate. Then there was the house party and the young and inexperienced Florentine measures herself against her rivals, parents, and beau. Her combination of defensive quips and throbbing hormones is certainly right. Emanuel's unwilling love for Florentine and her gradual response, each with inner doubts, provides the unity of the story.
Gabrielle Roy is the novelist of a Montréal now gone, the Montréal of Maurice Duplessis, and even the egregious Jean Drapeau, long before Le révolution tranquil. The working class French of 1940 stay of their side of Rue St Laurence in a quietude that is born with a stubborn resignation. The Church offers spiritual comfort in a world where there are few material comforts after a decade of the Great Depression.
That endurance is personified in Rose-Anna Lacasse, the mother of a starving clan of ten, soon to be eleven, children with her earnest but eight-year unemployed husband Azarius. All of them go to bed hungry and get up hungry. The children dress in rags and share shoes. Yet they all persevere.
A sign in Montréal in 1939.
Roy enters into the lives of her characters, or maybe it is the other way around, they have entered into her life and she chronicles their determination, dignity, forbearance, and humiliations in a world they did not make, but in which theirs is to make the best of if that they can. The inner monologues of her cast of characters are compelling. Confused, determined, troubled, hesitant, defeated, defiant they may be inside, but outside each tries to maintain a façade. Rose-Anna is calm; Azarius is cheerful; Emanuel is self-contained; Florentine is scornful....
To a politically-minded person they are victims of an oppressive social order that could be changed. To Roy they are God’s children, each one precious, individual, and whole just as they are.
The novel, written by a Manitoba school teacher, provides a companion piece to The Canadian novel, ‘The Two Solitudes’ written at nearly the same time by a Nova Scotia school teacher. But the books differ. McLennan’s ‘Two Solitudes’ implies a political agenda and it looks to a changed and perhaps better future. Roy accepts eternal reality as the mystery of life in which we must trust in God and ourselves. That might sound passé, even retrograde, to some but in her hands it is a message of salvation.
By the way, in McLennan's novel conscription into the Canadian army is feared by Canadiens, but in Roy's novel three of the central Québecois characters voluntarily enlist, and a fourth throws himself into a war industry. The army represents a job, an income, after nearly a decade without either. (Yes, I know some of them ended their lives at Dièppe in 1942.)
Moreover, when I compare this book to so many contemporary prize-wining novels that I try, and fail, to read, I realise she has the one essential of a novelist, that so many published novelists lack, a story to tell about people. To which she adds a sympathy, an empathy for others that transcends the facile judgements that reviewers love.
I have read her ‘Alexandre Chenevert’ (1951) and ‘Where Nests the Waterhen’ (1955) and found much pleasure and occasion to reflect in each. There is a very informative biography of her on the Canadian Dictionary of Biography online web site. She wrote constantly and kept every word she wrote including letters sent (and received). The Amazon Canada web site has shown her for more than a year as ‘Roy Gabrielle,’ despite many complaints, mine among them. The Mechanical Turk has fallen asleep, it seems. I see in this mixup the fate of those with two first names, but others find a darker purpose to capture her work for the masculine!
The original title was ‘Bonheur d’occasion’ which is an idiom meaning, at its most basic, ‘Best wishes.’ The title ‘The Tin Flute’ refers to one incident in the novel. It was filmed in 1983, turning this compassionate study of grace under pressure into melodramatic drivel suitable for a mid-day movie.