Manitoba by the Book: an occasional series of introductions to writings about our city and province, with an emphasis on the strange, obscure or forgotten. Manitoba moments.
Enchantment and Sorrow/La Detresse et l’enchantement (1987/1984), by Gabrielle Roy
Churchill is still waiting for a train.
The town on Hudson Bay is more than 1,700 kilometers by rail from Winnipeg. Once the Province was bound together by a rail network that included stops in innumerable villages and towns. For decades that network has been eroding.
Eighty years ago, author Gabrielle Roy boarded a train in Winnipeg as an unknown. The journey and her destination were both personal touchstones that would live on in her works.
Although writing in French, Roy was for decades Manitoba’s most famous literary export. Enchantment and Sorrow is her autobiography, or at least the the first half of what she planned. It was published the year after her 1983 passing.
It chronicles the struggles of her family and the French community as she grew up in St. Boniface. The account is a vivid re-creation of her life that sometimes reads like a novel. It takes the reader up to the point she settled in Montreal and decided to devote herself to writing.
Roy was the youngest of 11 children, growing up on Rue Deschambault.
She attended the Provincial Normal School to obtain her teaching certificate and was active in local theatre – both Cercle Moliere and the Winnipeg Little Theatre.
Roy saved for eight years while teaching school during the Depression. She raised $800 dollars for a planned year in Europe and then squeezed out a little more by selling her bicycle, fur coat and other possessions.
In the summer of 1937, she headed to the near North for her last few months in Canada. For free board and the princely sum of $5 a day, she ran a tiny summer school with seven students.
It was on an island in the Waterhen River. The country had already put a spell on her during a visit the previous summer to Camperville, on nearby Lake Winnipegosis.
This summer, writes Roy, “was one of three or four wonderful pauses in my life when I’ve had the time to rebuild my physical strength and state of mind.”
In particular, the rail journey was an idyllic ride that is hard to imagine today.
It all began when she reached Dauphin exhausted at 6 a.m., after an all-night train ride from Winnipeg. She struggled to get comfortable on a wooden bench on the platform.
The stationmaster took pity on her, and offered her his own bed while she waited for the local train that would take her on to Rorketon, the closest stop to her final destination.
I wanted that bed so badly I followed him without further hesitation. He led me to the bedroom, took off the counterpane, folded it neatly and put it on a chair, turned down the bed, which indeed had been freshly changed, put the two pillows one on top of the other, plumped them, and said, “There now…” He promised he’d come and wake me before the train arrived and promptly left, closing the door behind him. I took off my suit and slipped between the clean sheets. I think I was asleep the minute my head touched the pillow. Only seconds later, it seemed, I felt the gentle touch of a hand and heard an unfamiliar voice saying:
“Miss, your train will be here in ten minutes.”
It was two in the afternoon.
The little Rorketon train crawled along with only one passenger carriage and four passengers. Behind the caboose, a car was loaded with railroad ties to be tossed off here and there as needed for repairs.
Gabrielle Roy had neglected to bring any food for the trip, but there was a pot of stew bubbling on the stove in the caboose. A “panhandler’s smile” won the day.
I received a good heaping bowlful, and the brakeman brought similar helpings to the nurse and the cattle merchant. The nurse passed around some homemade cookies, still warm, out of a big bag which she’d put inside a bigger one to keep them fresh. The brakeman came back shortly with cups of scalding-hot tea.
The wide-open windows on the train brought nature’s sights, sounds and scents indoors.
It was the season of wild roses. With their bright colour, they were spread over the countryside like a setting for a never-ending banquet. Their perfume was intoxicating. Above them, insects of every description darted and hovered, buzzing covetously. Then, after the panorama of roses, among the tall grasses there appeared masses of such pretty little blue flowers nodding on their long, delicate stems that I longed to see them more closely. We were going so slowly I decided I’d have time to jump off, run and pick some, then run back and get on again. The engineer was leaning out of his cab enjoying the sights and fresh air of our surroundings. When he saw me scurry into the field, snatching up a flower here and there, he called to me not to be in such a hurry, we had lots of time, and without further ado applied the brakes. The train waited nearly ten minutes while I picked a bouquet.
When I climbed back on with my arms full of flowers, everyone, including the cattle man, smiled at me kindly, as if at some vision of youth, wish-fulfillment, or childhood reverie. The warmth of those smiles made me so happy I’ve never forgotten it.…I sometimes think of my companions that day as a group of new-found friends who are still waiting for me somewhere, on a little train that doesn’t exist any more.
When she finally reached the island, it was an isolated summer. Some of the students paddled to class every day. Because of the heat in her little schoolhouse, she would end classes at three o’clock and they all would swim in the “crystal clear” river.
That Fall, Roy sailed for Europe. Today it would be called “finding yourself.” When she returned in 1939, she settled in Montreal where she worked at freelance writing. In 1945, her first novel, Bonheur d’occasion, was an enormous success, and translated as The Tin Flute, enjoyed even more success.
Five years later her second novel was pure Manitoba – Where Nests the Waterhen (La Petite Poule d’Eau). Perhaps more a collection of stories than a novel, it chronicles small lives in a vast land.
When she left the Little Waterhen, Roy writes in Enchantment and Sorrow, “I had almost everything I needed for the novel I wouldn’t begin to write until 1948.”
Although she lived most of the rest of her life in “exile” in Quebec, she remembered Manitoba in her stories and ultimately her autobiography.
Gabrielle Roy received three Governor General’s Awards in her career. Patricia Claxton, the translator of Enchantment and Sorrow, would also receive a Governor General’s Award for its translation.
Renowned Quebec artist Jean Paul Lemieux created illustrations for a 1971 Gilles Corbeil edition of La Petite Poule d’Eau. But in his vision, the Rorketon train rolls through an empty snow-covered plain, not a paradisal summer.
In 1989, Manitoba named one of the islands on the Waterhen as Gabrielle Roy Island.
Today the rail line from Dauphin is long gone.