I’m teaching a course on Quebec and Cajun culture in the spring, and I’ve been doing some reading to prepare for it. One of the most delightful things about my job is that I feel virtuous when I read wonderful novels, because I’m developing professionally. Gabrielle Roy’s La Route d’Altamont (The Road Past Altamont) was a terrific example of this pleasing circumstance.
This novel is a barely-fictionalized memoir of Gabrielle Roy’s childhood and adolescence in Manitoba. The book is divided into four connected sections, each of which follows Christine through an important adventure or encounter. She meets her indomitable grandmother and learns about a woman’s creative power; she travels to Lake Winnipeg with an old gentleman and sees the value of connection to nature; she slips out and has a secret adventure with a family of movers and their sordid clientele; and she learns to let go, to depart, and to come home.
Roy’s style is beautiful. It reminded me in some ways of Alice Munro’s memoir, Lives of Girls and Women, which also takes place in a small town in Manitoba, but where Munro is rebellious, sullen, and sharp, Roy is sensitive, gentle, and eager. As she takes in all the impressions of her family history, the countryside that surrounds her, the people that she meets, her personality changes and grows until she is ready at last to leave the home that formed her. Yet it’s clear that she will not easily leave home behind: her last line is a tribute to her mother’s yearning for the hills of her own home. Grandmother to mother to daughter: Roy claims both her desire to wander and her desire to write as a powerful family legacy.
This was a beautiful book. It made me want to read some of her other, less autobiographical work: Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute), for instance. I would certainly recommend The Road Past Altamont as a lovely, gentle, coming-of-age novel, and a charming introduction to some French-Canadian literature.