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  • Between Languages and Cultures: Colonial and Postcolonial Readings of Gabrielle Roy
  • Mariel O'Neill-Karch (bio)
Rosemary Chapman . Between Languages and Cultures: Colonial and Postcolonial Readings of Gabrielle Roy. McGill-Queen's University Press. 2009. 320. $95.00

Manitoba-born Gabrielle Roy was exposed early to both French and English cultures. When she began to write fiction, however, she opted to do so exclusively in French, though many of her novels and short stories are set in Western and Northern Canada. Her best-known novel, Bonheur d'occasion (1945), depicting working-class Montreal, was awarded France's prix Femina, while its English translation, The Tin Flute, garnered the 1947 Governor General's Award. The fact that a 1978 poll conducted among professors of English at Canadian universities selected her as the best Canadian woman novelist (in English) shows how well this major French-Canadian writer is integrated into the Anglo-Canadian canon. Rosemary Chapman, a reader in French and Canadian studies at the University of Nottingham, has provided us with a welcome addition to the study of Roy's work by framing it in a carefully analyzed presentation of ongoing negotiations between competing languages and cultures.

The objectives of the book are threefold. The first is to lay the groundwork and to provide a conceptual frame, which draws on a wide range of theoretical and empirical studies of both colonialism and postcolonialism, for a background study of the complexities of the Manitoba education system, where Roy was successively both pupil and teacher, and the changing status of the French language in the province. The second strand, based on archival research, aims to show what precisely Roy would have studied - and taught - in both English and French. The third, and most important strand, is a study of Roy's fiction, in French and in English translation, read from these perspectives.

The first chapter, provocatively titled 'The Ambivalences of Learning to Be a Canadian,' provides a close reading of curriculum and, more specifically, of textbooks destined for pupils in both anglophone and francophone schools. Each has cultural and moral biases, typical of the time. For example, The Manitoba Reader, in use from 1911 to 1923, when Roy was in elementary school, contains the following ditty by Robert Louis Stevenson, called 'Foreign Children': [End Page 318]

Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,Little Frosty Eskimo,Little Turk or Japanee,Oh don't you wish that you were me?

This seemingly innocent sounding poem is indicative of the English curriculum that was meant to instil in the Caucasian child an attitude of racial - and linguistic - superiority. In an attempt to preserve the past, the French curriculum was peppered with references to Catholic teachings as well as to the heroes of New France. Roy was exposed to both curricula, and she quickly observed the differences between the discourse of visiting French Catholic dignitaries, who spoke of the survival of the French-Canadian cause, and that of members of the Manitoba Board of Education, who concentrated their remarks on allegiance to Britain, loyalty to the King, and a Canadian identity that stretched from sea to sea. Roy learned to play the game and seemed, though there is some ambivalence, to be equally at ease in both languages and in both cultures. This ambivalence came to a head when Roy wrote about the atmosphere surrounding Bill 101 to a friend, English-Canadian novelist Joyce Marshall, stating that 'the madness may pass over. Or deposit hatred on both sides, which would last almost forever. I was brought up in much the same atmosphere. I dread it like the worst evil.' For Roy, a long-time resident of Quebec who was not a separatist, it is clear that identity cannot be defined in purely linguistic terms.

This meticulously researched and cogently argued book is a signal contribution to the study of Gabrielle Roy's oeuvre in that it reveals, along with an ambivalent attitude to Quebec as well as to Canada, 'a sense of fluidity, a constant attraction toward other identities and experiences, and a rejection of any fixed pattern of identification based solely on language or culture.' This monograph will be of great value to historians of...


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pp. 318-319
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