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It takes a village: cultural border crossings in Rue Deschambault and Ces enfants de ma vie by Gabrielle Roy.

Throughout Gabrielle Roy's short stories, characters frequently confront cultural differences. Whereas some may approach this task from a global perspective, the most effective and accessible means to this end typically finds itself on a local level. In her study on Roy, M. G. Hesse correctly indicates that Roy favors highlighting the variety of people included in the "Canadian Mosaic" in works such as Ces enfants de ma vie. (1) This tendency to view cultural differences as a beneficial and enriching component of a given society is evidenced in Roy's attention to the interactions among ethnicities in Ces enfants de ma vie. Likewise, the same can be said of Rue Deschambault, among other works. Through the variety of her literary representations of interpersonal connections that defy deeply engrained cultural divides, Roy fruitfully complicates an issue that may appear simplistic but is quite complex in her literary Manitoban reality.

In Rue Deschambault and Ces enfants de ma vie, Gabrielle Roy lyrically recounts several attempts at cultural border crossings in her series of short stories that are written in an autobiographical vein. (2) By the end of Rue Deschambault, we learn of the narrator's plans to become an elementary school teacher, plans that parallel the author's own in 1920s Manitoba. The narrator of Ces enfants de ma vie chronicles the life of a Francophone school teacher who serves as cultural initiator to children of many different lands and languages. This older narrator's seemingly limitless energetic attention to the process of making cultural connections and of surmounting cultural and linguistic differences reveals a leitmotiv that is clearly distinguishable in Rue Deschambault as well.

Through Roy's narrators' encounters with characters from culturally, linguistically, and sometimes geographically different backgrounds, the author effectively complicates the delicate and rather daunting task of crossing cultural borders. The narrators of the two works confront characters distinctly "other" to themselves in a variety of situations. Likewise, the narrators' methods of cultural bridge-building are varied. Furthermore, the results of their attempts to make cross-cultural connections, although generally successful, are not always effective in the long run. In "Vincento," the narrator facilitates her student's transition to school through the use of nonverbal communication. In "L'Italienne," the narrator's family facilitates their neighbors' transition to life in the Canadian prairies through the use of food. The school-teacher narrator of "Demetrioff" not only helps her student adjust to life in her classroom by enlisting the help of the skill of handwriting, but also paves the way for the student to connect with his equally frustrated and frustrating father for the first time. The cultural divides in "L'Alouette" and "Les Deux Negres" are almost eliminated by the narrators' enlisting the help of music. Finally, the narrator's father's benevolent attempts to ease an entire village into life on the plains in "Le puits de Dunrea" have catastrophic results.

In Rue Deschambault and Ces enfants de ma vie, Gabrielle Roy's narrators employ various methods in order to overcome the obstacles they face. Roy's real life position as Francophone in an Anglophone environment served, perhaps, as the impetus to her use of music and of nonverbal communication in her everyday world. In her autobiographical La Detresse et l'enchantement, Roy describes several meaningful encounters with music and the theater.

To begin, Roy tells of her reaction to a production of the Merchant of Venice at the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg. She likens the communication that took place in the theater to the language of music:
 Il ne s'agissait plus enfin de francais, d'anglais, de langue
 proscrite, de langue imposee. Il s'agissait d'une langue au-dela des
 langues, comme celle de la musique, par exemple. (Detresse, 72) (3)

Like music, the language of the stage, both physical and verbal, surpassed all linguistic boundaries for its audience.

Gabrielle Roy's other memories of the power of music center around her uncle's home and family. While Roy was teaching in Cardinal, she frequented her uncle's home where music played a major role. On a personal level, her uncle used music to stabilize his moods:
 Apres les prieres a n'en plus finir, le soir, en famille, s'il n'y
 avait pas de danse aux environs, mon oncle attrapait son violon et,
 d'oreille, pendant des heures, cherchait a rendre des airs gais comme
 Turkey in the Straw, qui aboutissaient, sous son archet, a quelque
 dolente musique sans presque aucune melodie. Meme au temps des grands
 travaux epuisants de fin d'ete, rares etaient les soirees ou il manqua
 a cette recherche sur son violon d'airs joyeux, tournant helas si
 diaboliquement a la plainte (Detresse, 58).

In addition to appreciating her uncle's performances, Roy also enjoyed the musical interludes she experienced and performed with her cousins:
 Ma cousine et moi reprenions pendant des heures nos pieces a quatre
 mains rabachees sur le vieux piano du salon, toujours pretes a rire
 aux larmes quand eclaterait parmi les notes hautes celle qui imitait
 si bien un cris de souris, depuis qu'une souris justement, ayant fait
 son nid dans ce coin du piano, avait ronge le feutre entourant une des
 cordes (Detresse, 113).

For Roy and for her relatives, music was more than mere entertainment--it was the common language of family gatherings.

Gabrielle Roy also resorted to nonverbal language found in the theater as a means to reach her audience outside of the family. While in Manitoba, she was a member of a drama troupe that would tour the Francophone villages of the province:
 Vers ce temps-la, une bande de garcons et de filles de notre ville,
 quelque peu doues, les uns pour la musique, d'autres pour la danse,
 ou, comme moi, pour la declamation, ainsi qu'on disait alors, nous
 nous etions lies en une sorte de compagnie ambulante qui parcourait,
 en tournee de spectacles, les paroisses de langue francaise du
 Manitoba (Detresse, 145).

Considering Roy's activities in this comedic group, it is not surprising that she would travel to England and France in 1937 to study theater more profoundly (Detresse, 507).

Nonverbal communication and music appear prominently in Gabrielle Roy's fiction as well. In "Vincento," the narrator of Ces enfants de ma vie is challenged to integrate a small Italian student into her Canadian Prairie classroom. Vincento first appears as a frightened child: "un petit garcon, son image si vivante, aux memes yeux sombres et desoles, a l'air souffreteux" (Ces enfants, 11). Not atypically dramatic, this scene on the first day of school is to be expected. However, this case is complicated by the involvement of Vincento's loving father who cannot assume the more objective role that would permit him to insist that his son attend school on this day in spite of the trauma. The father pleads with the narrator: "Et, de fait, le pere se mit a plaider avec moi. Puisque le petit etait si malheureux, ne valait-il pas mieux pour cette fois le ramener a la maison, quitte a essayer encore cet apres-midi ou le lendemain [...]" (Ces enfants, 12). Having successfully convinced Vincento's father to leave, the narrator observes the panicked child, comparing him to "un petit chien perdu" (Ces enfants, 13). In an effort to gently introduce all of her students to life in the classroom, the narrator includes them in a much appreciated activity. Vincento, however, does not take part and further expresses his reluctance to join by kicking his teacher in the leg (Ces enfants, 15) to which the narrator responds with a brisk "--C'est bon [...] on n'a pas besoin de toi [...]" (Ces enfants, 15). Dreading Vincento's return to her classroom after lunch, the narrator is surprised by the rapid effects of her acts:
 [...] il grimpa a moi comme un chat a un arbre, s'aidant a petits
 coups de genoux qui m'enserrerent les hanches, puis la taille. Parvenu
 au cou, il me le serra a m'etouffer. Et il se mit a me couvrir de gros
 baisers mouilles qui goutaient l'ail, le ravioli, la reglisse (Ces
 enfants, 16).

In the end, the narrator's strong-handed approach to her classroom and to Vincento's case in particular proves to be an effective means to the child's integration; the narrator has successfully helped her student cross over to the other side of this cultural boundary.

The narrator's family makes an international connection with Giuseppe Sariano, a new arrival from Italy who builds a bungalow on the narrator's street, in Rue Deschambault. Lisa, his wife, soon becomes the sole recipient of the narrator's family's attention in "L'Italienne." Faced with the task of befriending their new neighbor, the narrator's family showers Giuseppe with gifts. Beginning with the offering of a fruit tree, we see how powerful this friendly act becomes through the narrator's father's account of the exchange:
 Et papa rapporta que l'Italien devait etre sentimental en Italien;
 aussitot en possession de l'arbre, il l'avait palpe, en avait caresse
 l'ecorce; il l'avait embrasse meme, en disant "Je suis proprietaire
 d'un arbre! En mettant le pied pour ainsi dire au Canada, j'acquiers
 un arbre tout fait et portant des fruits! Le ciel est avec Giuseppe
 Sariano." (Rue, 185).

Encouraged by this positive response to their kindness, the family finds new ways to strengthen the neighborly bond. The narrator's mother decides to offer food to their new neighbor while the narrator, a young girl, decides to offer simple strawberries from the family garden. When the narrator tells her parents that Guiseppe accepted the fruit from the girl in his typical affectionate manner, the parents worry: "Papa et maman se sont jete un de ces regards; j'appelle 'un de ces regards' ceux qui ont l'air de signaux entre grandes personnes. Papa s'est leve en serrant les poings" (Rue, 187). Fortunately, the parents realize that they nearly fell into a cross-cultural misunderstanding; indeed, Giuseppe's affection was nothing more than his warm personality, a character trait foreign to the Prairies. When Giuseppe's wife's long-awaited arrival finally comes, the narrator's family finds that Lisa is as friendly and as wonderful as her husband. The narrator's family's relationship with Giuseppe and Lisa is cut short, however, when Giuseppe passes away suddenly. Now distraught at facing the death of Giuseppe and the imminent departure of Lisa, the narrator and her mother pay the latter a visit. Wanting to please her new neighbors, Lisa offers the mother the choice of any object from her home to keep as a memento. The mother chooses an object and is consoled in turn: "Nous sommes revenues avec notre cruche. Tant son bonheur de l'emporter chez nous etait reel et fort, maman parut en oublier quelques moments le depart tout proche de l'Italienne" (Rue, 195). Thanks to the narrator's family's initial gifts of friendship and food, they are rewarded not only with a cherished memento of their Italian neighbors but also with the cultural connection they made that will continue to enrich their lives.

The story entitled "Demetrioff," in Ces enfants de ma vie, presents an episode in which the narrator-teacher is able to mend successfully a troubled father-son relationship. Having been warned by her colleagues of the Demetrioff legacy of nasty, uncontrollable Russian-speaking boys who are controlled by a crude and stubborn father, the narrator makes special efforts to reach "her" Demetrioff and succeeds. While conducting a lesson in handwriting, she notices that her Demetrioff has amazing penmanship and decides to highlight this talent to everyone's best advantage. During a special day in which parents attend school with their children, Demetrioff arrives with his father. While her Demetrioff is at the board demonstrating his abilities in handwriting, his father moves forward to join him in front of the class:
 Enfin, etait-ce par jeu? il prit au petit garcon le baton de craie et,
 dans ce qu'il restait de place en haut du tableau, s'essaya a former
 lui aussi des lettres. Un leger rire courut dans I'assistance devant
 la gaucherie touchante de l'effort. A ce rire le bonhomme repondit par
 une sorte de grognement amical. Il rendit la craie a l'enfant et le
 poussa dans le dos pour l'inciter a continuer a ecrire. Le petit ne se
 fit pas prier (Ces enfants, 76).

In spite of Demetrioff's father's lack of social graces and poor reputation among his neighbors, he manages to come forward and connect with his son. After he further tests his child without being able to reach his son's limit of ability, a wall between the two comes down:
 Gauchement, il prit l'epaule du petit garcon. Il la petrit un moment a
 sa rude maniere, tout en cherchant sans trop le brusquer, a tirer vers
 son bras la tete de l'enfant. Le petit resistait, seulement a moitie
 deraidi. A la fin, il laissa aller sa menue face craintive contre la
 manche du pere. Il leva vers lui ses yeux apeures. Alors, de haut en
 bas, de bas en haut, passa un sourire si bref, si maladroit,
 sitatonnant, que ce parut etre le premier a passer entre ces deux
 visages (Ces enfants, 76-7).

By capitalizing on Demetrioff's skills in her classroom, the narrator arms her student with the ability to succeed in class and to connect with his estranged father. By extension, her efforts also provide Demetrioff's father with the pretext necessary for his successful and nonconfrontational acceptance into the foreign community in which he finds himself.

The narrators of the two collections frequently enlist music to pave the way to better cross-cultural understanding. Rather than simply aiding the author's recreation of past days and the author's representation of a harmonious childhood in Rue Deschambault, as Carol Harvey suggests, (4) music serves as an effective tool for the narrator to bridge cultural gaps when the lingua franca fails. Rue Deschambault opens with the short story "Les Deux negres" in which the narrator recounts her confrontation with racial prejudices. Although this short story's characters will not revolutionize society's prejudices, the characters of the two black men featured are developed in a manner that attests to Roy's genuine interest in their social situation. (5) In the story, the narrator's mother is constantly competing with her neighbor, Mme Guilbert, and is always conscious of the latter's opinion of her and her family. When faced with financial hardship, the narrator's family decides to take in a boarder to help defray costs. Isolated in the Prairies, finding a lodger would not prove to be easy. Through the narrator's brother's connections at the Canadian Pacific Railway, a suitable addition to the family home is found. At the outset, what poses as an obstacle for the narrator's family is the dark color of the tenant's skin. Unfortunately, contemporary stereotypes and prejudices about skin color negatively cloud the mother's initial reactions to the proposal. With surprisingly little detail about the mother's change of heart, the narrator reports that her mother eventually sees sense and welcomes the boarder into their home. While the narrator's sister, Odette, is playing the piano, we find that the boarder is attracted to such a diversion:
 Il descendit l'escalier doucement, tout doucement. Il s'arretait vers
 la huitieme marche, dans le tournant; il s'y asseyait; entre les
 barreaux, il pouvait voir un peu Odette qui avait en ce temps-la une
 masse de cheveux blonds, tres fins, que ses mouvements au piano, son
 agitation eparpillaient en meches dorees sur son front, dans son cou.
 Odette [...] invita le Negre au salon. Et, pour lui, elle reprit, des
 le debut, le prelude de Rachmaninoff (Rue, 24).

Later we find that Mme Guilbert, having financial problems of her own, also takes in a black boarder. Her daughter, who also practices the piano, experiences a similar connection with her lodger:
 Gisele en ce temps-la jouait des pieces a quatre mains avec Odette;
 quand elle fut abandonnee de ma soeur, qui frequentait le Negre, elle
 se mit a rabacher a coeur de soiree un morceau de Schumann qui
 s'appelait, il me semble: A la Bien-aimee. Pendant que sa mere et la
 mienne faisaient de petits pas devant la maison des Guilbert, Gisele
 jouait pour leur Negre, qui, lui aussi, de marche en marche, en etait
 rendu au salon. Mme Guilbert s'en doutait peut-etre, mais probablement
 aimait-elle mieux les savoir dans la maison que sur la galerie, au su
 et au vu de tous (Rue, 28-9).

The parallel lives of the two sets of neighbors who live on the same street, have sons who work for the railroad and daughters who play the piano, and who rent rooms to black men will soon come together in a melodious performance. This story ends with both black boarders together with the two young girls in concert:
 Peu apres, prive de sa compagne, le Negre des Guilbert vint au salon
 rejoindre notre Negre qui, accompagne par les accords d'Odette,
 chantait. Alors arriva Gisele qui prit place pres de ma soeur sur le
 banc du piano, et les deux jeunes filles soutenaient a quatre mains
 les voix des deux Negres qui se lancaient en d'admirables variations;
 l'une profonde comme la nuit, l'autre seulement comme le crepuscule,
 elles s'echappaient de toutes nos fenetres ouvertes, elles roulaient
 en meme temps que des reflets de lune sur nos pelouses fremissantes
 (Rue, 30).

Through the narrator's family's willingness to go against the grain of contemporary societal prejudices, both families on rue Deschambault have set the stage for a cross-cultural collaboration and are, in turn, rewarded with a symphony composed of people of different languages, cultures, and skin colors literally making beautiful music together.

A later episode in which the narrator of Ces enfants de ma vie enlists music to make an intercultural connection is in "L'Alouette," a story about one of her young students. Nil demonstrates one day at school his beautiful singing voice when he performs a Ukrainian folk song for the narrator. In hopes of spreading some joy to her ailing mother, she invites him to her home to visit:
 Il se campa devant maman comme pour prendre pied dans du vent et se
 lanca dans la gaie chanson du cerisier. Son corps se balancait, ses
 yeux petillaient, un sourire vint sur ses levres, sa petite main se
 leva et parut designer au loin de cette chambre de malade une route?
 une plaine? ou quelque pays ouvert qui donnait envie de le connaitre
 (Ces enfants, 44).

After witnessing such a beautiful performance, her mother finds the strength to return to her physical therapy, eventually regaining her ability to walk. After witnessing the miraculous effects that Nil's singing has on her mother's physical condition, the narrator decides to seek permission to accompany Nil to a retirement home, a venture that has equally beneficial results:
 Ils avaient l'air heureux maintenant, tous suspendus aux levres de
 Nil. Et le spectacle tragique de la salle se terminait en une espece
 de parodie, les vieillards s'agitant comme des enfants, les uns prets
 a rire, les autres a pleurer, parce qu'ils retrouvaient si vivement en
 eux la trace de ce qui etait perdu (Ces enfants, 47).

Once again, the narrator witnesses the healing power of Nil's singing, which encourages her further. Word of the medicinal effects of Nil's songs spreads and he is invited to visit a mental hospital. Although the scene may have first appeared awkward and foreboding, Nil's music changes the atmosphere: "Des les premieres notes s'etablit un silence tel celui d'une foret qui se recueille pour entendre un oiseau quelque part sur une branche eloignee" (Ces enfants, 49). By harnessing her Ukrainian student's musical talents, the narrator not only helps her own ill mother, but she also reaches a large audience of elderly people in her community as well as the mentally ill, a group of people whom most of the narrator's community believes to be far beyond the point of human contact.

Efforts to connect with people from other cultures are not always successful in Roy's work, however, as in the story "Le puits de Dunrea" in Rue Deschambault where the narrator recounts the experiences of her father with one of his villages. Having established a group of Russians in a village of his own design the narrator's father continues contact with the newly immigrated people, helping them in any way he can. During one especially turbulent summer full of brush fires, Dunrea risks turning into an inferno. The night of the threatening blaze, the father rushes to Dunrea to evacuate his colonists, only to find them reluctant to abandon their new village and all of their possessions that they have only recently acquired. Even after explaining the certain death that awaits anyone who remains in the village, the father seems to have lost all connection with his beloved citizens of Dunrea. In desperation, he summons ultimate fear by telling them that the fire is the wrath of god. The father appears to reestablish communication with Jan Sibulesky, the man with whom the father shared the most. Unfortunately, this was not in the way that was hoped.

Instead of encouraging his neighbors to evacuate, Jan finds his statue of the Virgin Mary and makes his way to the village church in an effort to speak with God. The catastrophic result astounds all present:
 Mais ils etaient tous groupes comme des spectateurs en une haie
 vivante, et sans doute en ce moment etaient-ils tres curieux de Dieu,
 de Jan; si avides de curiosite qu'ils n'avaient plus d'autres pensees.
 Les paroles du cantique resonnerent encore un moment a travers le
 crepitement des flammes; puis tout a coup elles se changerent en un
 epouvantable cri. Papa n'a jamais cesse d'entendre, succedant aux
 notes de la priere, ce rugissement d'horreur. Une poutre embrasee
 s'etait ecroulee sur Jan Sibulesky. Les hommes curieux de miracles se
 deciderent enfin a partir, et en debandade (Rue, 137-8).

The remaining Dunreans evacuate their burning village only after witnessing Jan's firey demise as the burning church crushes him to death. After the fire runs its course, the father has hope that his Russian friends from Dunrea might realize that human life is worth more than material goods, but he finds that the Russians have not changed their attitudes: "Et papa songea a s'informer des femmes: 'Etaient-elles toutes en securite?'--'Oui, repondirent les Petits-Ruthenes: elles etaient toutes en securite, mais pleurant sur leurs douces maisons, leurs bahuts, leurs coffres pleins de beau linge ...'" (Rue, 141). In this case, the narrator's father's devotion to Dunrea and to its inhabitants is rewarded with their devotion to him. However, as they become more productive and wealthy, the citizens of Dunrea lose sight of the value of human life. Although Dunrea appears to be the narrator's father's most lauded success, we see that his connection with these people is not as complete as first thought.

Life on the Canadian prairies during the first half of the twentieth century poses many obstacles to Roy's characters. Besides the harsh climate and topography, the cultural cornucopia of individuals who inhabit this region is inherently compartmentalized. In her Rue Deschambault and her Ces enfants de ma vie, Gabrielle Roy addresses this cultural compartmentalization and allows her characters to challenge the barriers that exist between people from markedly different and often opposing backgrounds. The author's tools frequently are nonverbal communication and music. Through her father's position as Colonizer of Western Canada, her love and talent for nonverbal communication and music, and her own profession as prairie elementary school teacher, Gabrielle Roy has a plethora of real life material at her disposal. Using these lived experiences as the inspiration for her work to her best advantage, the author intricately details the international microcosm that is her native region. The narrators of Rue Deschambault and Ces enfants de ma vie witness many cultural border crossings. At times, they even serve as ambassadors who facilitate such connections. The young girl who narrates Rue Deschambault values her Italian neighbors and is cognizant of the importance of making the family's black boarder feel like one of the family. She is also duly distressed at her father's surprise failure in his endeavors with Dunrea. The more mature schoolteacher of Ces enfants de ma vie tells us of her successful encounters with her small Italian student with whom she is able to connect thanks to her strong pedagogical presence. She also recounts her amazement at the healing power of music in her dealings with the Ukrainian Nil. Her most impressive success is perhaps the connection that she makes with Demetrioff and his father who, as a result, is able to face the community that shuns him. With Rue Deschambault and Ces enfants de ma vie, Gabrielle Roy does not propose that the act of crossing cultural boundaries is easy. Rather, by detailing specific encounters with those who are "other" and by highlighting the rewards as well as the difficulties and pitfalls of these relationships, Roy presents the reader with lyrically honest accounts of her own literary multicultural village.

1. M. G. Hesse, Gabrielle Roy, (Boston: Twayne, 1984), 77.

2. Hesse, 38.

3. Quotations from Roy's three works, La Detresse et l'enchantement (as Detresse), Rue Deschambault (as Rue), and Ces enfants de ma vie (as Ces enfants) will be cited in the text.

4. Carol J. Harvey, Le cycle manitobain de Gabrielle Roy (Saint-Boniface: Editions des Plaines, 1993), 156.

5. Yannick Resch, "Figures de l'Etranger" in Un Pays, Une Voix, Gabrielle Roy, Marie-Lyne Piccione, editor (Bordeaux: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1991), 83.


HARVEY, CAROL J. Le cycle manitobain de Gabrielle Roy. Saint-Boniface: Editions des Plaines, 1993.

HESSE, M. G. Gabrielle Roy. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

RESCH, YANNICK. "Figures de l'Etranger" in Un Pays, Une Voix, Gabrielle Roy, Marie-Lyne Piccione, editor. Bordeaux: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1991.

ROY, GABRIELLE. Ces enfants de ma vie. Montreal: Editions du Boreal, 1993.

_______. La Detresse et l'enchantement. Montreal: Editions du Boreal, 1996.

_______. Rue Deschambault. Montreal: Editions du Boreal, 1993.


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Date:Jun 22, 2004
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