Oh! The childish poor!


I have to say, I’m really disappointed that The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy is the only Canadian work chosen in my program – not only is it a questionable choice in terms of its parochial approach to the struggle of people to live meaningful lives, but there are far greater works of Canadian literature that get to the heart of ethnicity, social estrangement, working class limitations and the constraints of background than this. Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners for one. Not to mention many of the Chinese Canadian authors who have emerged in the past few decades (Wayson Choy being the most notable example).  I suspect however, that it wasn’t just the themes for which this book was chosen, but also for the time period it was written in and depicts (the outset of World War 2 at the end of the Depression).

There are all sorts of claims about this book out there, that it was a “realistic” portrait of working class Quebec, and was the hard, cold look of themselves that Quebeckers needed – fueling the Quiet Revolution of the sixties. But it should also be noted that Gabrielle Roy is known as English-Canada’s favourite French-Canadian writer which is some damning faint praise…. and might give you an idea of how accurate her portrait was. It certainly did fit into the stereotype that English Canada held about Quebec at the time (and still does to some degree), if that what is meant by “realistic”.

Roy’s story mainly focuses on the doings on the Lacasse family with Florentine (aged 19) and her mother Rose-Anne occupy parallel shorelines in a recounting of life in poverty in the St-Henri suburb of Montreal. In the early pages of the book we learn that Florentine is a waitress who gives her earnings to the support of her family (perhaps her only redeeming characteristic as she also comes across as naive, vain and not very smart) and her mother Rose-Anne is pregnant *again* with her eleventh child. Though they have been on relief, they get by for the first chapter on the wages of Florentine and the father (Azarius) until he loses his job as a taxi driver for loafing in the cafes instead of waiting at his cab stand for customers.

And so it goes. Florentine falls in love with an unsuitable man who pretty much rapes her while her parents are out in the country visiting family. Pregnant out of wedlock, she machinates to get another man who is smitten with her (the middle-class Emmanuel) to marry her before he goes off the join the war. In the meantime Rose-Anne has a gaggle of malnourished children, one who is eventually diagnosed with leukaemia and dies which she chalks up to “bad luck” as she does every hardship in their lives. Along the way we come to understand that many rural Quebeckers in the city of Montreal live this way, and that they have not adapted out of their ignorance despite moving to a city with other (higher) influences. Aware of their poverty they live in continual resentment of their lives and each other. Occasionally the characters do incredibly stupid things which have obvious outcomes that Rose-Anne, Azarius and Florentine seem unable to foretell – like Azarius taking a work truck out to the country without permission (he has an accident), Rose-Anne giving her son $10 set aside for rent (he hires a girl for the night with the money and the family is evicted a couple of weeks later), or Florentine inviting her crush over to an empty house in the hopes she can manipulate him into loving her.

In short, Gabrielle Roy’s Quebecois are lazy, non-adaptive, stupid, mean, manipulative, small-minded and short-sighted. Not to mention endlessly pregnant. On the other hand, we are supposed to sympathize with the characters because they don’t know any better, coming (as they do) from ignorant rural people who have so many children they can’t even give them a little love.

The problem here isn’t that Roy depicts people who are somewhat trapped in circumstances due to background, lack of education and family support – but they are continually engaging in behaviour that is morally reprehensible as though they couldn’t possibly understand the ethical implications of their action (though the reader clearly can). Yes, Emile and Florentine might have flickers of reflection on their behaviours – but these are ultimately over-ridden by their need for self-gratification. The poor are essentially children when it comes to meeting their own needs, and that is why they remain poor.

In contrast, the only reflective character in the book – that is, the only one able to look at his situation without the superstition of “luck” clouding his judgement is the middle-class Emmanuel who has voluntarily joined the army for the “right” reasons (because he believes in the cause and the possibilities of the outcome) unlike many others who have joined out of poverty or the need for escape. Though he is blinded by his concern for Florentine (loving her even more because of her weakness and small-mindedness), he is ultimately portrayed as noble and pure-of-heart (not to mention educated, interested in the larger world and handsome) against the backdrop of the city’s poor.

And so, what I expect was assigned as a meditation on making meaning out of hard circumstances became an entirely different read for me. Instead I come away from this wondering who it is that determines what “accurate” representation is across time, culture and ethnicity. While Gabrielle Roy was French-Canadian and Catholic like her characters, she clearly came from a background of some middle class privilege as a journalist and then novelist. I also think it’s worth noting that she only moved to Quebec as an adult having been raised in francophone Manitoba. It is from this vantage point that Roy descends into Montreal and begins her”portrait” which comes across as little more than judgement wrapped in sympathy (not unlike the charity-model so popular among upper-class women).

It’s difficult to attempt to speak for another – but that’s something we’ve only come to analyze in the last thirty or forty years. For a long time we had white men of the upper middle-class and then eventually some women (but also white and middle-class) attempting to tell all sorts of stories that didn’t belong to them, stories that didn’t originate from their own lives. Often that didn’t work so well (think Kipling), but sometimes it really did (Dickens, Steinbeck) – but either way, it wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that we really thought to question how the authorial experience and voice might be shaping narratives in favour of the dominant socio-cultural paradigm.

It’s common knowledge (I think) that English and French Canada have had an uneasy relationship ever since the Battle at the Plains of Abraham (in Quebec City the signage at the PofA park doesn’t indicate anywhere that the French lost that one), and I believe much of English Canada is still engaged in an attempt to diminish the French culture in Quebec, Manitoba and New Brunswick. Much like the Euro-Canadian attitude towards First Nations people in Canada, the English would just rather the French problem went away altogether – which of course involves assimilation rather than annihilation (we’re Canada after all).

While I don’t believe this is Gabrielle Roy’s interest (she is French-Canadian after all), The Tin Flute reads like a plea from one who doesn’t want to lose their French culture but instead wishes it would gentrify – not in order to see everyone lifted up per se (socialism! how naive) but because to be related to such backwards, superstitious and shiftless people is an embarrassment. It is a little like Bill Cosby lecturing Black America – cringe-inducing in that you can see the author/speaker means well, but the impact of their words simply fuels an already-present racism/bigotry in the dominant population.

No doubt The Tin Flute is an historic Canadian novel – but nowhere near the calibre of the rest of the works we read this semester (and last) in terms of quality or significance. I have to wonder whether this is just some hastily added Can-con and if so….. I would rather have none than this rather weak addition to our reading.

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