Saturday, December 11, 2010

Gabrielle Roy's The Tin Flute

Many firsts in my life have happened in Montreal; I've loved the city ever since my first visit when I was sixteen. So I was pre-disposed to like The Tin Flute, a novel set in its impoverished St. Henri neighbourhood in 1940, after Canada entered World War II but before the conscription crisis. The Tin Flute tells of the tribulations of the Lacasse family--nineteen-year-old Florentine, her mother Rose-Anna, father Azarius, and several younger siblings. Will Azarius find work? Will Rose-Anna survive another pregnancy and another annual move to desperate digs? Will Florentine meet a nice young man like Jean Levesque or Emmanuel Letourneau at her job at the lunch counter at the Five and Ten?

The tin flute of the English title is a toy, a symbol of inexpensive yet still out of reach fleeting joy the mother contemplates purchasing for a dying child. The English translation of the original title Bonheur d'Occasion would be something more like Hand-me-down Happiness or even Damaged Goods (Bonheur = happiness/luck/joy + d'Occasion = used/secondhand). The Tin Flute won Canada's Governor-General 's Award for Literature in 1947. In some ways, the writing style feels as comfortable as snuggling into flannelette with a cup of hot cocoa. Although it is cinematic in the sense that each chapter is a scene focusing on one of the main characters, the style also seems old-fashioned in the way that the third-person omniscient narrator knows and tells the reader everything that each character sees, hears, does, thinks, and feels. The details are vivid and revealing, the characters fully realized and totally believable. Although some of the plot points are a bit predictable, they are predictable in the way pregnancy and poverty are inevitable both in their causes and their effects.

Writer Gabrielle Roy understands her characters inside and out. She uses these characters to explore larger themes of class, the dearth of hope among the impoverished, the relationship between economic depression and personal despair, and between personality and “success.” Roy is also talking about the irony of war as salvation and the triumph of practicality over tribal nationalism. In the same way that geography parallels income (Westmount looks down upon the town below), certain characters, no matter what we think about them, rise above their conditions, their achievement of “success” dependent upon their individual ability to adapt. In the tug-of-war between idealism and realism, the winners are those who are able to translate vision and goals into action.