Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy ~ 1977. This edition: McClelland & Stewart, 1979. Translated from the French by Alan Brown. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-7838-2. 171 pages.
My rating: 9/10
Gabrielle Roy’s writing has such a freshness to it, and such a rare delicacy of thought and feeling, that her works are quite unique. I can’t think of any other author to compare her to. (Though perhaps Ethel Wilson comes closest?)
Roy stands alone, off in a serene (but never sentimental) corner of the Can-Lit world, where one imagines her raising a gently cynical eyebrow at the often lewd and rude blusterings of her approximate contemporaries – the Mowats and Richlers and such-like sorts – whose works shared space with Roy’s on publishers’ lists of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Gabrielle Roy has been well-served by her translators. She wrote and was published in French, though she was fluently bilingual, and the English translations I have collected over the years are never awkwardly phrased or unclear in intent.
Children of My Heart is a sketchy sort of “novel”, in that it is actually a series of anecdotal recollections, based on Gabrielle Roy’s personal experiences as a young teacher in Manitoba in the 1930s. It reads like a conventional snippets-of-incident memoir, and only in the last episode do we have anything like a traditionally structured plot progression, as the young teacher – only eighteen – becomes involved in a chaste but emotionally passionate relationship with a thirteen-year-old pupil, the “bad boy” of a little prairie settlement, who is blessed with supreme physical beauty (not to mention uncanny violet eyes), equally supreme horsemanship abilities, and a romantically tragic backstory.
The earlier part of the book is composed of character portraits of various young students and their parents, as seen from the viewpoint of the naïvely optimistic young teacher, fresh out of Normal School and finding her way under the gently mocking protectorship of the only-slightly-older but much-more-experienced teachers she has come to join.
This is, in my opinion, a rather slight book in the author’s body of work. It was Roy’s last published fiction, and its glowing reviews reflect (one suspects) the high regard in which her earlier, more complex books were held. (It received a 1977 Governor General’s Award for French Language Fiction.)
I found The Children of My Heart a lovely thing, expectedly poignant and moving, but not nearly as strong as certain of Roy’s other novels. If you are expecting another Street of Riches or Tin Flute or Cashier, I would like to let you know that you will not find it here, though there are many moments of deeper reflection where the author is obviously looking back at the person she once was, and clear-sightedly analyzing how she may have affected her students’ lives by her words and actions, as they in turn left their marks upon the person she was to become.
With this in mind, I will say that I highly recommend it, both for those seeking to round out their experiences with this iconic French-Canadian writer, and those new to her work.