Friday, March 4, 2011

Books and Miscellanea at The Do-tique

Dear Readers,

Please do not lose hope and assume that I have abandoned my work here at The Do-tique! The fact is that most of my internet publishing time has been taken up with designing and assembling a web site that I intend to launch shortly. Truth be told, this was most certainly a project best left up to the experts! While I have come to learn quite a bit about using online templates to design a page, the frustrating hours spent trying to learn how to do this sort of work myself have caused me to develop a new-found appreciation for the skills of a technician. The knowledge and experience gained have been higly valuable and I can now say that I'm capable of creating a basic web page, but the time investment has also been quite a bit larger than I anticipated and my plans are to find an expert to help me finish and polish up my work before the big reveal. I've realized that my skills are in concept and layout, but that I still have some technical learning to do before I can use the technology to manufacture what I see in my mind's eye!

DIY Rating: 4
WYSIWYG site design was not as straightforward for a
novice user as I anticipated. Consider an expert here if
you cannot afford to invest the DIY time.

Where Nests the Water Hen (Paperback) ~ Gabrielle Roy (Author) a... Cover Art

Part of the small remainder of my free time has been spent reading Where Nests the Water Hen by Gabrielle Roy. This book appeared in the New Fiction section at the library and I was attracted to a title that included the key words "nest" and "hen" - they sounded like just the sort of thing I'd be interested in.

What I was not aware of is that water hen in the title refers to a settlement on a body of water (I think connected to Lake Winneopegis) located in southern Manitoba. Depsite this tome's placement in the public library, it was originally published in 1951 and this is a new edition of that publication.

The author, Gabrielle Roy, spent a number of years as a school teacher in Manitoba and this book is loosley based on characters and events that she experienced during that time. She writes here about these events some years later and her voice appears here as an anonymous, thrid person narrator.

There are two story lines in the novel that are joined together at the end. The first concerns the Tousignant family headed by the hen-like Luzina and her husband Hyppolite and their many children. I think the final tally works out to ten children in 14 years and I don't think that includes the surprise baby that arrives some years later. The family lives on a small island set on the river and the tale opens with Luzina's myterious annual business trip. I will leave the reason for the trip a surprise and note only that once the business is revealed, it is a delightful surprise for the reader. The main theme here is the relationship between the family and the "outside world" partly represented by the correspondence that they exchange with the government and the three school teachers that are deployed to the island by that same government. The family demonstrates and interesting reflection of Canadian nationalism in that they hold the founders of French Canada and the country of France in high esteeem as their heroes and champions while at the same time reserving no guile for the current anglophone government, even allowing one of the school teachers to raise the Union Jack on their property - indeed there is an awe for the authority of the British Empire and the miracles that it can acheive.

The second story line concerns the character of a Capuchin father who visits the Tousignants annually in July. He is an authentic mendicant living as a constant traveller with a genuine innocence in his belief that Providence will provide for his needs through the kindness and charity of others. He provides the reader with a gentle and heartfelt reflection on life on and around the Water Hen from the perspective of a loving outsider. He is bold in his belief that God will assist him and guide him in helping these people - his indulgences include making a child-like request to the head of the CPR to gain a bell for his small chapel and his intervention with the poor fur trappers where he takes their furs all the way to Toronto and ends up receiving in payment many times what they had been able to sell their goods for locally. The Imperial Fur Company rewards him with a beautiful fur coat that he dons but once a year for his trip to Toronto and eventually divests himself of lest he should become too accustomed to luxuries of the flesh. In contrast, when Luzina is asked to repair his habit, she finds it to be so threadbare that she can barely piece it back together.

Gallinula chloropus NBII.jpg

Birds are a recurring image in the book. We hear of their coming and going with the seasons and their presence in the poetic descriptions of the landscape. The family is disconcerted by the teacher, Armand Dubriel, who comes to live with them for the season and spends more time massacring the island's bird population for rifle sport than he seems to spend teaching the children. The author spells it out most plainly through the Capuchin's use of bird species to describe different types of souls in his annual sermon. There is also the Capuchin father's reflection on the "dance of the birds" that so closely mirrors the evening of dance on the prairie at the end of the novel. For the most part, the souls that live in the area are not soaring eagles or hawks, but rather homey water hens who like to nest and roost and raise their families in lonely peace. Some, like the older Tousignant children, tend to "fly the nest" in search of greater education and careers others are migratory like the Capuchin himself.

As a reader, what was strange was how disconnected I felt from this story as a part of my own cultural heritage. As someone growing up and living in modern southern Ontario, life in rural Manitoba in the 1930's is like hearing about an exotic foreign country. Embarrassingly I barely know anything of the French-Canadian culture of the prairies let alone the history of all the other immigrants that are mentioned in the book. I was reminded a bit of Tolstoy's character Dmitriy Olenin from The Cossacks in so far as it was a bit of a journey into a culture and experience as Canadian as my own, but so very foreign and in the end, unchangeable by the reader's visit to that time and place.

RIY (Read it yourself) Rating: 10
Very much enjoyed this short and delightful novel. 
The translation is also excellent and flows beautifully.


  1. That book sounds good. I'd never heard of it before. I like how you describe the characters as birds.

  2. Thank you for the compliment - this is one that I think you would personally enjoy.

  3. That looks like a very intersting book. I will have to see if I can find a copy somewhere. Another good book on a culture very different that ours is I Am Hutterite-about a young woman growing up as a Hutterite and then leaving the colony with her parents when they encounter differences of opinion. It was just written in the last couple of years but it was an excellent view into both life on the colony and being transplanted from one culture to another.

  4. Thanks, Anonymous, for the book tip. That one's been in the back of my mind, but I'd forgotten to look for it...
    Welcome to The Do-tique!

  5. If you want to continue reading in this genre, I would recommend "Wild Geese" by Martha Ostenso. It is considered a classic in terms of Can-lit and is set in 1920s Manitoba, as well. Welcome to the Prairies, city girl.


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