As emotionally evocative and stirring as Street of Riches, this latest compilation of semi-autobiographical vignettes continues Christine's stories of her childhood and the lessons that helped shape her.
Those who have read Roy's Street of Riches will be heartened to read this continuation of Roy's journey to authorship, with her literary persona Christine returning once more. In the span of four short stories, Christine relives details and remembered observations of the world as she saw it then, and the realization of what she was seeing as she looked back.
With refreshing candor and wry humour, Roy delivers an exemplary follow-up to her first novel, as young Christine learns what it means to move through the stages of life, and how change is inevitable with each movement.
About the author
Gabrielle Roy was an award-winning French Canadian author.
Excerpt: The Road Past Altamont: Penguin Modern Classics Edition (by (author) Gabrielle Roy)
I was six years old when my mother sent me to spend part of the summer with my grandmother in her village in Manitoba.
I balked slightly at going. My old grandmother frightened me a little. She was known to be so devoted to order, cleanliness, and discipline that you couldn’t leave the tiniest thing lying about at her house. With her, it seemed, it was always, “Pick up after yourself, put away your things, as the twig is bent . . .” and other admonitions of the sort. As well, nothing exasperated her so much as the tears of children, which she called “mewling” or “caterwauling.” That was another thing: her rather curious way of speaking, partly invented by herself and often far from easy to figure out. Later, however, I found several of my grandmother’s expressions in my old Littré and realized they must date back to the time when the first settlers came to Canada from France.
Yet she must have found time heavy on her hands, for it was her own idea that I should spend part of the summer in her company. “Send the little sickly one to me,” she wrote in a letter my mother showed me as proof that I would be welcome at Grandmother’s.
Those words “little sickly one” had already made me feel none too well-disposed toward my grandmother; so it was in a more or less hostile frame of mind that I set out for her house one day in July. I told her so, moreover, the moment I set foot in her house.
“I’m going to be bored here,” I said. “I’m sure of it. It’s written in the sky.”
I didn’t know that this was precisely the sort of language to amuse and beguile her. Nothing irritated her as much as the hypocrisy that is natural to so many children—”wheedling and coaxing,” she called it.
So at my dark prediction I saw something that in itself was unusual enough. She was smiling faintly.
“You’ll see. You may not be as bored as all that,” she said. “When I want to, when I really set my mind to it, I know a hundred ways to keep a child amused.”
But, for all her proud words, it was she herself who was often bored. Almost no one came to see her any more. She had swarms of grandchildren, but she seldom saw them, and her memory was failing, so it was difficult for her to tell one of them from another.
From time to time a car full of young people would slow down at the door, perhaps stop for an instant; a bevy of young girls would wave their hands, calling, “Hello, Mémère. How are you?”
Grandmother would just have time to run to the doorstep before the girls disappeared in a whirlwind of fine dust.
“Who were they?” she would ask. “Cléophas’s daughters? Or Nicolas’s? If only I’d had my spectacles I would have recognized them.”
“That,” I would inform her, “was Berthe, Alice, Graziella and Anne-Marie.”
“Ah!” she would say, struggling to remember whether these particular girls were the daughters of Nicolas, of Cléophas, or of Alberic.
The next moment she would begin to argue with herself. “But no. What am I thinking? Most of Nicolas’s children are boys.”
She would go to sit for a moment in her rocking chair beside the window to try to settle the matter once for all and make a complete inventory of her descendants. I loved seeing her like this, looking for all the world as if she were unraveling some skeins of tangled wool.
“In Cléophas’s family,” she would begin, “there’s Gertrude first, then the oldest son—now what is that big dark boy’s name? Is it Rémi?”
“No, indeed. Now let’s see,” I would answer, beginning to lose my patience. “Rémi belongs to Uncle Nicolas.”
“Ah, you don’t say,” she would remark with a vexed look.
But I noticed that little by little she became less troubled by my awareness of her infirmities—her dimming eyesight, her faulty hearing, and, what was even more irritating to her, the failure of her memory.
The following day another group of young people might descend upon us, this time by buggy, “but only for five minutes.”
Grandmother would hurry to set the table, perhaps hoping to bribe them to stay, but nothing of the sort: the moment she had gone down to the cellar to fetch a pot of gherkins, the girls in their Sunday clothes would be caroling, “We can’t wait. We’re on our way to Rathwell. . . . Bye bye, Mémère!”
She would come up, blinking a little, and ask, “Have they gone?”
From outside could be heard a great racket of departure.
“Oh these modern young people!” Grandmother would exclaim.
We were alone in the little house, listening to the lamentations of the prairie wind as it writhed interminably in the sunlight, forming and re-forming tiny rings of dust.
Grandmother would begin to talk to herself, perhaps unaware that I was listening. One day I heard her sigh at the window.
“You’re always punished by the very things you thought you wanted. I probably wished too often for comfort, to have everything neat and tidy, to be free of children clinging constantly to my skirts with their doleful wailing. I wanted just one minute to myself. Now I have a whole century to myself!”
She sighed again, then began to reproach God.
“Why does he listen to us when we ask for things that won’t suit us when we get them? He ought to have sense enough not to listen.”
Then she remembered my presence in the house and summoned me with a little gesture of the hand.
“Well, at least I know your name.”
Then she asked, “And what is your name again?”
“Christine,” I told her with some annoyance.
“Yes, that’s so. I knew. Christiane.”
And, lost in her thoughts, she asked, “And how old is that little girl?”
There was one time of day when I never failed to feel a sense of boredom and lassitude coming over me. This was the moment when the sun, just before it disappears, casts a great red light over the prairie, a remote strange light that seems to extend its vastness and at the same time empty it of all human presence, as if giving it over to wild dreams of the time when it existed in utter solitude. It seemed then that the prairie wished to have no people, no houses, no villages upon itself, that it had tried, with a single stroke, to rid itself completely of all this and be once more as it was in the old days, proud and lonely.
At Grandmother’s, moreover, there was no way to avoid this disturbing sight. The village was small and Grandmother’s house stood right at the end of it; the prairie surrounded us like the ocean on all sides except the east, where a few other little houses could be seen, our companions on what seemed to me a terrifying journey. For in the complete immobility of the prairie, one had the sense of being drawn forward on a sort of voyage across an endless land of everlasting sameness.
Suddenly, understanding neither my sorrow nor its source, I burst into loud wails.
“Oh I’m so bored, so bored, so bored!”
“Will you be still,” said Grandmother irritably. “You make me think of a coyote howling at the moon.”
I tried to be still, but soon my strange sorrow, nameless, with no cause that I could define, seized me again and I howled more loudly than ever. “Oh I’m so bored, so bored, so bored!”
“Ah, the poor Innocents!” said Grandmother.
This was always her term for unhappy children, especially when they were in the depths of their inexplicable distress. She might have been alluding to the Massacre of the Blessed Innocents— I do not know— but whenever she saw a child weeping bitterly she would exclaim, in an indignant voice, “Ah, the poor Innocents!”
In vain she offered me all the many good things to eat there were in the house, and finally, knowing no other way to distract and console me, she said, “If you’ll just stop caterwauling, I’ll make you a doll.”
Immediately my tears stopped.
I looked skeptically at my grandmother seated in her high rocking chair.
“You find dolls in stores,” I said. “You don’t make them.”
“That’s what you think,” she said, and began as usual to complain about stores and high prices and the present-day custom of buying everything ready-made.
When she had vented her anger in this way, a little glimmer came into her eyes that I had never seen there before; it was quite extraordinary, like a light suddenly kindled in a place one had believed abandoned and overgrown. What she was going to accomplish today began, however, in the simplest way in the world.
“Go to the attic,” she said, “and fetch my big scrap bag. Don’t make a mistake. Get the one that’s tied on top with string. Bring it to me and then you’ll see whether I can make what I’ve a mind to make.”
Still incredulous, but curious too and perhaps secretly hoping to catch Grandmother napping, I went in search of the big scrap bag.
From it Grandmother drew some bits of multicolored material, all clean and sweet- smelling— Grandmother’s rags were always carefully washed before they were put away—pieces of chintz, of gingham, of dimity. I recognized, as was always the way in her quilts, the remains of a dress that had belonged to one of my sisters, of a blouse of Maman’s, of one of my own dresses and of an apron whose owner I could no longer remember. It was pleasant to be able to attach so many memories to these scraps. Finally Grandmother found a piece of white cloth. She cut this into several bits, from which she made what looked like a number of little bags of different shapes, one for the trunk, others for arms and legs.
“Now I’ll need some straw or salt or oats to stuff these with. It’s up to you. Which would you prefer,” she asked, “a soft doll stuffed with straw or—?”
“Oats,” I said.
“It will be heavy,” Grandmother warned.
“That won’t matter.”
“Very well then, go to the barn. There’s a sack of oats there left over from the time when I was thinking of keeping some hens. Fetch me a little dishful.”
When I came back, the various parts of the doll’s body were all ready to be filled with the oats Mémère had saved on the chance she might have some hens. I didn’t fail to notice the way a number of odd combinations of events were all rushing today to serve my pleasure. Soon my grandmother had stitched the stuffed limbs and body together and there before my eyes was a little human form, quite nicely made, with feet, hands, and a head that was a trifle flat on top.
I began to take a keen interest in the manufacture.
“But you’ll be stumped for hair,” I said.
“For hair? That’s what you think,” she said, enlivened by the discovery that the infinite and ingenious resources of her imagination, at least, were all intact. Imagination, you might say, was our family gift.
“Go back to the attic,” she said. “Open the right-hand drawer of the old chest I put up there. No rummaging, mind. Just take a skein of yarn . . . By the way, do you want one of those blonde dolls that are all the rage these days? Or a brunette? Or how about an old woman with white hair like me?”
I hesitated over the cruel choice. I felt a strong inclination toward an elderly doll with spectacles and white hair, thinking what a novel effect this would present. But I also greatly fancied a young lady doll.
“Could you make me one with blond curly hair?”
“Nothing simpler,” said Grandmother. “Bring the color of yarn that suits you and, on your way back, fetch my curling-iron from my room. Bring the oil lamp at the same time. No, on second thought, so you won’t break something, do it in two trips.”
This I proceeded to do. Grandmother then made a lovely wig of yellow hair, waved it with her curling-iron, and fitted it over my doll’s head.
I could no longer hide my astonishment.
“Do you know how to make everything?” I asked.
“Almost everything,” she said dreamily. “Young people nowadays don’t know the joy and pride of making do with what they have at hand. They toss everything out.”
And after a moment she went on, “When I was young, I had to get along without buying things in stores. I learned. Oh yes, I learned,” she said, gazing far back into her life. . . .”But now your doll— she must have a face. Climb onto the table and see if you can stretch way up and snatch my pen and bottle of ink from the ledge.”
When I had brought her these things, she moistened her pen and drew on the still blank face of my doll the arcs of the eyebrows first, then eyes, mouth, and a completely straight, precise little nose.
I began to clap my hands and to prance about with a joy I found it impossible to contain. No doubt it was the creative talent of my grandmother that delighted me so. Indeed, whenever I have seen this gift of God at work, even if it is possessed by the humblest creature— and it is to be found in astonishing places— it has always filled me with the keenest pleasure.
“Oh but her mouth should be red,” I said.
“That’s so,” said Grandmother. “That blue mouth gives her a peaked look. This may present a bit of a problem. But we’ll manage.”
I noticed that she was beginning to associate me with her creative work and I felt prouder than ever of her talents.
“Go and look on the bureau in my room,” she said with a flash of inspiration. “See if there isn’t a tube of that stuff they call lipstick— atrocious stuff, real Indian war paint, but for once it will be of some use to us. It seems to me that Gertrude— no, I mean Anne- Marie— Ieft some here the last time she went into my room to titivate.”
I found just so, in the exact spot she had indicated, the Indian war paint.
With this, Grandmother drew the prettiest little red mouth, pursed just a trifle as if in a vague smile.
Curly-haired, a blond with blue eyes, my doll seemed to me now, with her rather mocking smile, to be completely beautiful, though she was still stark naked.
“To dress her,” said Grandmother, “I have some very nice curtain lace in the bottom drawer of the bureau in the guest room. Go and fetch it and, while you’re at it, look in the top drawer too. I think you’ll find some blue ribbon there.”
Half an hour later, my doll was wearing a pretty white dress, trimmed with ruffles and a sky-blue sash, and Grandmother was busily stitching a row of minute blue buttons down the front of the dress.
“But she’s barefoot,” I said suddenly in consternation. “Shoes will be a little harder, eh, Mémère?”
I was becoming humble, very humble indeed before her, before the grandeur of her mind, the deftness of her hands, the sense of exalted and mysterious solitude that surrounds all those who are busy with creation.
“Shoes,” she said simply. “Would you like them made of leather or satin or plush?”
“Oh, of leather!”
“Yes, it’s more durable. Well then, go and fetch the yellow leather gloves that used to belong to your uncle Nicolas. You will find them . . .”
This time too, under her directions, I put my hand without trouble on the yellow leather gloves.
“It’s store leather,” she said, turning them about and peering at them closely. “Stores sell mostly rubbish, badly stitched, badly finished. For once something handsome and of good quality has come from one of those places. Your uncle Nicolas had extravagant tastes in his youth,” she confided. “But it’s true that he bought these gloves for his wedding. Now you see how everything can be of service more than once. Yesterday for a wedding, today for dolls’ shoes. They say I keep everything, that I encumber myself, that I’m an old-fashioned old woman. But a day always comes when the things you tossed out of the window might have been put to good use.”
While she was talking, she first cut out, then put together the most adorable little dolls’ shoes I had ever seen.
“While I’m at it,” she said, “I might as well make her some gloves.”
Night came. Grandmother had me light the lamp and bring it close to her. Neither of us thought of the evening meal. The strict daily schedule to which my grandmother held so firmly for once had ceased to exist. So when something bigger than the timetable presented itself, she was quite able to ignore it. She went on working, her glasses on her nose, as happy, I am convinced, as in the days when urgent tasks claimed her from morning till night, leaving her, you might say, no moment’s respite in which to scrutinize the vast enigmatic depths of fate. Or perhaps I should say happy with a completeness she knew only when her task transcended the bare requirements of the moment.
“Have you thought of a name for her?” she asked, looking at me from under her spectacles.
They were old spectacles with steel rims.
“Ah!” she said, and I knew that the name pleased her. “There was an Anastasie in my village in Quebec in the old days. It’s a striking name, not like these little short modern names that you forget the very next minute: Jean, Jeanne, Robert, Roberte. . . . In the old days people had names you could remember—Phidime, Viateur, Zoé, Sosthène, Zacharie. . . .”
All this time my doll was progressing. She didn’t, it might be said, need anything else, but Grandmother was undoubtedly too well launched by now to be able to stop. From some black cloth she fashioned a traveling cape, then— one thing suggesting another— painstakingly set to work with cardboard and glue to make her a little valise. To this she stitched a minute handle, which I slipped over Anastasie’s hand.
Even this wasn’t enough.
“She must have a hat,” Grandmother declared. “One doesn’t go traveling without a hat, even in these shameless modern times.”
She sent me to fetch an old straw hat from behind the door of the vestibule. She unraveled it, then, working slowly with her rheumatism-stiffened fingers— with such fingers, she told me, it was much more difficult to work with small things than with large— she knitted a new, this time tiny, dainty hat.
“What!” I cried, quite overcome. “So you know how to make hats too!”
“In the old days I made very pretty hats from the fine marsh straw not far from our house. . . . Not only that,” she told me, “I have often dressed someone— your mother, your grandfather— from head to foot. . . .”
“From head to foot, Mémère!”
“From head to foot . . . and without needing to go to the store for a single thing, except perhaps for buttons . . . And I’ve even made those out of ox horn; with an awl to pierce the holes, I managed.”
“From head to foot!” I said.
She held out my doll with her straw hat hanging from her neck by a ribbon. I was so happy that I burst into tears.
“Well, if we’re going to have that again, if I’ve done all this for nothing!” Grandmother said in grumbling tones.
But, forgetting how little she cared for effusiveness or caresses, I climbed onto her knees, flung my arms around her neck, and sobbed with a happiness that was too piercing and wide to bear, almost incredible. It seemed to me that there was no limit to the things this old woman with the face covered with a thousand wrinkles could accomplish. A sense of grandeur, of infinite solitude, came over me.
“You’re like God,” I wept into her ear. “You’re just like God. You can make things out of nothing as he does.”
She pushed me away but without too much exasperation or impatience.
‘‘I’m far from being like God,” she said. “Do you think I’d know how to make a tree, a flower, a mountain?”
“A flower, perhaps.”
She smiled a little. “I’ve certainly made plenty of them grow.”
Nevertheless, I saw that she wasn’t offended by my comparing her to God.
“For with such means and strength as he gave me,” she said after a moment’s reflection, “I have aided him not too badly in his creation. I have perhaps done all a human being could do. I have twice built a home,” she told me, “having followed your trotting horse of a grandfather from one part of this vast country to another. I began all over again here in Manitoba what I’d already made back in Quebec, made once for all, I thought— a home. That is work,” she assured me. “Yes— a house, a family—that’s so much work that if you saw it before you all at once in a single heap, you’d think it was a high mountain— a mountain you couldn’t possibly climb over.”
She realized that I was listening to her, Anastasie clutched against my heart, but perhaps thought it all passed over me—and indeed most of it did, though I kept a little of it.
“That is what life is, if you want to know,” she continued, and I no longer knew to whom she was speaking, “a mountain made of housework. It’s a good thing you don’t see it at the outset; if you did you mightn’t risk it, you’d balk. But the mountain only shows itself as you climb it. Not only that, no matter how much housework you do in your life, just as much remains for those who come after you. Life is work that’s never finished. And in spite of that, when you’re shoved into a corner to rest, not knowing what to do with your ten fingers, do you know what happens?” she asked, and, without waiting for an answer, told me, “Well, you’re bored to death; you may even miss the housework. Can you make anything out of that?”
“No,” I said.
She seemed utterly astonished to discover me, all attention, at her feet.
“Are you mad at someone?” I asked.
“Mind your own business,” she said.
But an instant later, withdrawn again into her reveries, she named for me, one by one, all those who had so bitterly offended her.
“Your grandfather Elisée . . . such a trick to play on me, the gay adventurer . . . to go first, without waiting for me, leaving me all alone on this western prairie, in exile.”
“Manitoba isn’t exile,” I said. “It’s home.”
“All the rest of you too,” she went on. “You’ll be just like the others. You’re all like him— independent, selfish, travelers every one of you. You all have to be off somewhere. . . . And God too—even he in many ways has forsaken me. Because truly, no matter what the priests say, no matter how hard they try to make reason and sense out of it, he allows too many strange worrisome things to happen to us.”
She grumbled on so that I dozed, leaning against her knees, my doll in my arms, and saw my grandmother storm into Paradise with a great many things to complain about. In my dream God the Father, with his great beard and stern expression, yielded his place to Grandmother, with her keen, shrewd, far-seeing eyes. From now on it would be she, seated in the clouds, who would take care of the world, set up wise and just laws. Now all would be well for the poor people on earth.
For a long time I was haunted by the idea that it could not possibly be a man who made the world. But perhaps an old woman with extremely capable hands.
Other titles by Gabrielle Roy
Children of My Heart
Penguin Modern Classics Edition
The Tin Flute
Penguin Modern Classics Edition
Street of Riches
Penguin Modern Classics Edition
Where Nests the Water Hen
Garden in the Wind
The Gabrielle Roy-Joyce Marshall Correspondence
The Letters of Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy