A while back, a friend and I formed a little book club, comprising just the two of us. One year we read Victorian novels, and this year we are reading nineteenth- and twentieth-century French literature—translations because, alas, neither of us reads French well enough to make it through a whole novel.
My friend and I are quite different. He lives in a big city with his husband, and I live in the little house in the big woods. He is the sophisticated city dweller, and I am the country mouse. But we are bound by our love of books, and we recognized this in each other immediately after we met, when we could talk of nothing else except books, books, books. For me, and perhaps for my friend as well, it is the best kind of talk there is.
I would like to think that Gabrielle Roy, the author of Street of Riches, would have been right at home with us. Roy (1909-1983) was a French Canadian writer who was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Street of Riches is a collection of interconnected short stories starting when the narrator—Christine—is very young and ending when she goes away to teach school.
The blurb on the back of the book calls the stories “semi-autobiographical,” and it doesn’t take too great a leap to imagine Christine as a stand-in for Gabrielle Roy. The slice-of-life stories are set in Manitoba in the early 1900s, and they chronicle the sadness of Christine’s parents, who are better apart than they are together; her mother’s restlessness; Christine’s childhood illnesses, which earned her the title of “Petite Misère”; the struggle to find her true self; and Christine’s yearning to become a writer.
Roy was a shrewd yet sympathetic writer—my favorite kind of writer—who gives both of Christine’s parents their due. In each story there is piercing clarity and wisdom, written from an adult’s point of view but with great empathy for the young Christine and her family.
Street of Riches is, so far, the best book I’ve read this year, and through interlibrary loan I’ve ordered Roy’s The Road Past Altamont. I’m so grateful that my book buddy suggested Street of Riches for our little book club. I had never heard of Gabrielle Roy, and now she is one of my favorite writers.
I’ll end with a quotation from Street of Riches, from the story “Whooping Cough”:
“Why does one not learn sooner that one is, oneself, one’s best, one’s dearest companion? Why this great fear of solitude, which is merely an intimate commerce with the sole true companion?”
Why, indeed? Written like a true writer.