Monday, June 27, 2011

Canadian Book Challenge 4: The Road Past Altamont - Gabrielle Roy

The Road Past Altamont is a slim volume of four stories about a young girl named Christine growing up on the prairies of Manitoba.  Roy's style is dreamlike and introspective, but it's infused with a luminous kind of energy.  In the first selection, "My Almighty Grandmother", Christine, who is six years old, goes to stay with her grandmother and feels quite bored and irritated until her grandmother creates a doll for her.  It's not so much having a new toy as the act of creation that mesmerizes Christine, who was staunchly convinced up to that point that dolls only came from stores.

Soon after that, the grandmother, who is steadily declining, comes to live with Christine and her family.  At the end of her life, she can no longer speak or move, and Christine's mother despairs of reaching her.  Christine gets the idea of retrieving the family album and calling out to her grandmother the names of everyone in the pictures.  "In this way, it seemed to me, Grandmother would be able to gather once more into her mind all those who belonged to her."  Christine's mother walking by the bedroom, catches Christine at her new pastime and  gives her

"a sad and very tender smile...But why did she look so pleased with me?  I was only playing, as she herself had taught me to do, as Memere also  had played with me one we all play perhaps, throughout our lives, at trying to catch up with one another."

In the second story, "The Old Man and the Child", Christine is slightly older.  She strikes up a friendship with one of her neighbors, an old man named Monsieur St-Hilaire during the hot prairie summertime.  Each admires the other's imagination, and when the old gentleman finds out that Christine has never seen a large body of water, he arranges a trip to Lake Winnipeg for the two of them.  In one of the most arresting images in the book, they sit on the sand by the water, dressed up in their best clothing while people laugh and cavort all around them.  They just sit solemnly and look at the breakers and listen to "the deep song of the lake".

In "The Mover" Christine's mother (Maman) finds out what comes of having fed her daughter's imagination with stories of traveling from Quebec to Manitoba by covered wagon when she herself was a little girl.  Christine, who is now eleven years old, has always lived in the same home, and when she strikes up an acquaintance with the daughter of a man who moves furniture with his horse and cart to earn a little extra money, she is determined to accompany him on one of these moves so she can have a similar experience to her mother's.  Christine understands that moving ideally means going to something bigger and better, so she is disillusioned when the mover takes a family from one ugly shack in Winnipeg to an almost identical one on the other side of the city.  This is the least introspective of the four stories and the most entertaining.

The last story is the title story.  Christine is a young adult now and driving her mother to visit her relatives.  Maman is starting to pine for the hills she left behind in her childhood, and while traveling the back roads to take a shortcut to the highway, Christine gets lost and somehow ends up in the Pembina Mountains, which is the only mountain range in their part of Manitoba, which delights Maman.  Their only clue as to how they could possibly find their way back again is a post office sign for Altamont.  They go back again later and find some hills, but Maman is sure that they are not "their" hills, and that Christine has carelessly lost the way.  Furthermore, Christine has expressed a longing to leave Manitoba and go abroad to Europe, so Maman is feeling a double betrayal.

I've never read another writer that reminded me so much of Virginia Woolf -- that same strong combination of intelligence, empathy and elegance.  What a wonderful introduction to this author's work.  I want more.  The next book I'll be looking for by Gabrielle Roy is her 1945 novel The Tin Flute.


jenclair said...

I haven't read many books by Canadian authors, so reading about your choices is giving me a lot of possibilities.

Excellent review--I'm certainly interested in this one and love the title of the first section!

Eva said...

>>I've never read another writer that reminded me so much of Virginia Woolf -- that same strong combination of intelligence, empathy and elegance.

And on to the wishlist it goes!

Jenny said...

I loved this when I read it a little while ago for a Quebec and Cajun Culture class I taught. It made me want to read more by Roy, for sure.

Susan said...

I know I'm late commenting on this, but I've been feeling the desire to revisit the Tin Flute again - we have to read in high school here - and now I have this short story collection to look for. Thanks, Bybee!

You review short stories very well, your Tough & Cool Inner Chick can be very proud of you :-)

1morechapter said...

I really loved this book and I'm so glad you did, too. I don't think many have read it. I'm looking forward to reading more Roy at some point.