The Tin Flute, Gabrielle Roy’s debut novel, explores poverty, war, and Montreal, and it romanticizes none of them.
The book centers on the 10-member Lacasse family, which is trapped by poverty in the suburban dystopia of St. Henri. It focuses on Florentine, the eldest of the eight Lacasse children.
Florentine is a young waitress who wants to be loved by Jean, a customer at the diner who has buckets of ambition but only a thimble of respect for women. Regardless, Florentine feels she needs to win him urgently so she can move on from her terrible life.
“Of the half-formed thoughts that had crossed her mind she retained only one clear impression, as bitter as her fixed smile: right now she had to stake everything that she still was, all her physical charm, in a frightening gamble on happiness.”
While Florentine works to win Jean, she fends off the polite advances of one of Jean’s well-off friends, Emmanuel, who has signed on to the army during the lead-up to the Second World War.
Jean eventually goes on a date with Florentine, and then, at the end of it, date rapes and impregnates her. Then Jean disappears, moving out of St. Henri to find a better life.
Emmanuel, before leaving for war in Europe, takes one last shot and asks Florentine to marry him. Florentine, jilted and scared and pregnant, accepts the proposition, but not for romantic reasons; she sees Emmanuel not as a lover but as a saviour from poverty and a patsy who will believe the child she’s carrying is his, not Jean’s.
Other members of the family have stories, too, and they all encapsulate, in different ways, what the book is about: the prison of debt and underemployment, and salvation, the seeking of it and the costs of accepting it.
The only problem with the book is the wandering-and-pondering chapters. Nearly every character spends time walking through Montreal while thinking about past decisions and possible futures. These chapters are redundant; the action is enough for readers to realize that poverty is traumatizing and that salvation takes many forms: an engagement ring or a soldier’s uniform or, to some, family abandonment.
“He wanted to run, with such intensity his throat grew tight and dry. He wished he had no wife, no family, no roof over his head. He wished he were a tramp, a real old-timer, sleeping in a straw stack in the open air, his eyes wet with dew. He wished for the dawn that would find him a free man with no ties, no cares, no love.”
Though it makes a strong effort, the wandering and pondering can’t ruin The Tin Flute. It is a sometimes-beautiful novel, and it works perfectly as a sibling to Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, which was also published in 1945 and explores, albeit in a different way, the English-French and rich-poor dynamics of Montreal.
Craig MacBride (@craigmacbride) is a Toronto-based writer and communications consultant.
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