The Tin Flute, Gabrielle Roy’s first novel, is a classic of Canadian fiction. Imbued with Roy’s unique brand of compassion and compelling understanding, this moving story focuses on a family in the Saint-Henri slums of Montreal, its struggles to overcome poverty and ignorance, and its search for love.
An affecting story of familial tenderness, sacrifice, and survival during the Second World War, The Tin Flute won both the Governor General’s Award and the Prix Fémina of France. The novel was made into a critically acclaimed motion picture in 1983.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Gabrielle Roy was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba, in 1909. Her parents were part of the large Quebec emigration to western Canada in the late nineteenth century. The youngest of eight children, she studied in a convent school for twelve years, then taught school herself, first in isolated Manitoba villages and later in St. Boniface.
In 1937 Roy travelled to Europe to study drama, and during two years spent in London and Paris she began her writing career. The approaching war forced her to return to Canada, and she settled in Montreal.
Roy’s first novel, The Tin Flute, ushered in a new era of realism in Quebec fiction with its compassionate depiction of a working-class family in Montreal’s Saint-Henri district. Her later fiction often turned for its inspiration to the Manitoba of her childhood and her teaching career.
In 1947 Roy married Dr. Marcel Carbotte, and after a few years in France, they settled in Quebec City, which was to remain their home. Roy complemented her fiction with essays, reflective recollections, and three children’s books. Her many honours include three Governor General’s Awards, France’s Prix Fémina, and Quebec’s Prix David.
Gabrielle Roy died in Quebec City, Quebec, in 1983.
Toward noon, Florentine had taken to watching out for the young man who, yesterday, while seeming to joke around, had let her know he found her pretty. The fever of the bazaar rose in her blood, a kind of jangled nervousness mingled with the vague feeling that one day in this teeming store things would come to a halt and her life would find its goal. It never occurred to her to think she could meet her destiny anywhere but here, in the overpowering smell of caramel, before the great mirrors hung on the wall with their narrow strips of gummed paper announcing the day’s menu, to the summary clacking of the cash register, the very voice of her impatience. Everything in the place summed up for her the hasty, hectic poverty of her whole life here in St. Henri.
Over the shoulders of her half-dozen customers, her glance fled toward the counters of the store. The restaurant was at the back of the Five and Ten. In the glitter of the glassware, the chromed panels, the pots and pans, her empty, morose and expressionless ghost of a smile caught aimlessly on one glowing object after another.
Her task of waiting on the counter left her few moments in which she could return to the exciting, disturbing recollections of yesterday, except for tiny shards of time, just enough to glimpse the unknown young man’s face in her mind’s eye. The customers’ orders and the rattling of dishes didn’t always break into her reverie, which, for a second, would cause a brief tremor in her features.
Suddenly she was disconcerted, vaguely humiliated.
While she had been keeping an eye on the crowd entering the store through the glass swing-doors, the young stranger had taken a place at the imitation-marble counter and was calling her over with an impatient gesture. She went toward him, her lips slightly open, in a pout rather than a smile. How maddening that he should catch her just at the moment when she was trying to remember how he looked and sounded!
“What’s your name?” he asked abruptly.
She was irritated, less by the question than by his way of asking: familiar, bantering, almost insolent.
“What a question!” she said contemptuously, though not really as if she wanted to end the conversation. On the contrary, her voice was inviting.
“Come on,” said the young man, smiling. “Mine’s Jean. Jean Lévesque. And I know for a start yours is Florentine. Florentine this, Florentine that, Florentine’s in bad humour today, got a smile for me, Florentine? Oh, I know your first name all right. I even like it.”
He changed tone imperceptibly, his eyes hardened.
“But if I call you miss, miss who? Won’t you tell little old me?” he insisted with mock seriousness.
He leaned toward her and looked up with eyes whose impudence was apparent in a flash. It was his tough, strong-willed chin and the unbearable mockery of his dark eyes that she noticed most today, and, this made her furious. How could she have spent so much time in the last few days thinking about this boy? She straightened up with a jerk that made her little amber necklace rattle.
“And I guess after that you’ll want to know where I live and what I’m doing tonight,” she said. “I know you guys.”
“You guys? What do you mean, you guys?” he mocked, looking over his shoulder as if there were someone behind him.
“Just . . . you guys!” she said, half exasperated.
His familiar, slightly vulgar tone, which put him on her level, displeased her less than his usual behaviour and speech. Her smile returned, irritated but provocative.
“Okay, now!” she said. “What do you want today?”
Once again his look had that brutal familiarity.
“I hadn’t got around to asking what you’re doing tonight,” he said. “I wasn’t in that big a hurry. Normally I’d take another three days at least. But now you mention it. . . .”
He leaned back a little on the stool and weaved gently from side to side. As he stared at her, his eyes narrowed.
“Now then! Florentine, what’re you doing tonight?”
He saw that she was upset. Her lower lip was trembling, and she held it with her teeth. Then she busied herself pulling a paper napkin from a chrome box, unfolded it and spread it on the counter.
Her face was thin, delicate, almost childish. The effort she was making to control herself caused the small, blue veins on her temples to swell and knot, and her almost diaphanous nostrils, closing, pulled tight the skin of her cheeks, as smooth and delicate as silk. Her lips were still uncertain, still threatening to tremble, but Jean, looking in her eyes, was suddenly struck by their expression. Under the arched line of her plucked eyebrows, extended by a little streak of makeup, her lowered lids could not hide the thin bronze ray of a glance, cautious, attentive and extraordinarily eager. Then she blinked, and the whole pupil showed with a sudden gleam. Over her shoulders fell a mass of light-brown hair.
With no particular purpose the young man was watching her intently. She astonished more than she attracted him. And even this phrase he had just uttered, “What are you doing tonight?” . . . had been unexpected. It had taken shape in his mind without his knowing; he had tossed it out as one drops a pebble to test an unknown depth. But her reaction encouraged him to try again. Would I be ashamed to go out with her? he wondered. And then the idea that such a thought could intervene after he had gone this far pushed him on to greater daring. Elbows on the counter, eyes staring into Florentine’s, he was waiting, as if in a cruel game, for a move from her to which he could react.
She stiffened under his brutal scrutiny, and he was able to see her better. He saw her upper body reflected in the wall mirror, and he was struck by her thinness. She had pulled the belt of her green uniform as tight as it would go around her waist, but you could see that her clothing barely clung to her slender body. And the young man had a sudden glimpse of what her life must be like, in the rush and bustle of St. Henri, that life of spruce young girls with rouged cheeks reading fifteen-cent serial novels and burning their fingers at the wretched little fires of what they took for love.
His voice grew incisive, almost cutting.
“You’re from here? From St. Henri?” he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders, and her only reply was a vexed, ironical smile, again more like a pout.
“Me too,” he went on, with mocking condescension.
“So we can be friends, eh?”
From the Hardcover edition.
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