Gabrielle Roy was the youngest of eleven children of Leon and Melina Roy, eight of whom survived to maturity. For eighteen years, her father had been a federal Department of Colonization agent, helping immigrants settle in the Prairie Provinces. He was dismissed in 1915 by newly elected Conservatives shortly before becoming eligible for a pension. Gabrielle grew up in poverty in St. Boniface, a largely French-speaking suburb of Winnipeg. Despite winning best-in-province medals in high school, university education was unattainable. She attended Winnipeg Normal Institute, graduating in 1929, and worked at several schools before being hired in 1930 to teach first grade at Winnipeg’s prestigious Catholic boys’ academy.
In September, 1937, having obtained a leave of absence, Roy sailed for Europe. Brief attendance at a London theater school ended dreams of becoming a professional actress. Three articles accepted by a Paris weekly convinced her that she could succeed as a French writer. Roy returned to Canada in April, 1939. Despite objections of her mother, who could not understand abandoning a secure, well-paying job during the Great Depression, as well as the anger of her sisters who thought she was selfishly evading contributing to family finances, Roy settled in Montreal as a freelance journalist.
Roy’s work pleased editors of Le Bulletin des agriculteurs, a general-interest monthly magazine circulating mainly in rural Quebec. During the next five years, they regularly commissioned articles. In 1941, to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the founding of Montreal, Le Bulletin des agriculteurs published four essays in which Roy toured the city. She did not focus on poverty, but neither did she ignore it when visiting slums along Montreal’s waterfront.
Hoping that the drama and tragedy she sensed in slum life could be turned into literature, Roy began a short story in 1941 that grew into an eight-hundred-page manuscript. Published in French as Bonheur d’occasion in Montreal in 1945 and in English as The Tin Flute in New York and Toronto in 1947, Roy’s novel became a financial and public relations success previously unheard of in Canada.
Montreal critics praised the novel’s thematic freshness. Readers responded enthusiastically, requiring three new printings in the next twelve months. A New York publisher commissioned an English translation. The Literary Guild book club choose The Tin Flute as its May, 1947, Book of the Month, an unprecedented honor for a Canadian novel, guaranteeing unexpectedly large monetary returns. Hollywood signed a contract for a film, which was never made. In 1947, the novel received the Governor-General’s Award for fiction.
Roy visited Winnipeg in the summer of 1947 where friends celebrated her amazing success. While there she met, fell in love with, and married Marcel Carbotte, a gynecologist. They lived in France for three years. After 1951, they settled in Quebec City, where Carbotte established a successful practice. They had no children.
Publication in France followed the American triumph. Reviewers praised her depiction of urban life and found her use of Quebec colloquialisms fascinating. The climax of Roy’s success came with the award of the Prix Fémina in December, 1947, the first time a Canadian novel won a major French prize. Montreal literary circles were delighted to see France honor a Canadian book. Quebec nationalists disagreed, protesting that her portrait of slum life presented a negative image of French Canada to the world. With one book, Roy established herself as a major Canadian writer. The Tin Flute rapidly achieved the status of a classic of Canadian literature and became a favorite for academic analysis—the first M.A. thesis on the book appeared in 1949.
Roy found it difficult to produce the second novel that her publishers expected and shelved early efforts in favor of stories drawing on her experiences teaching French Canadian pupils in northern Manitoba. Literary critics in...
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