My already long list of authors whose work I want to read all of has just grown by one more. I've added French Canadian author Gabrielle Roy to the list. Although not her best known or perhaps her most acclaimed work, Windflower (La Rivière sans repos translated by Joyce Marshall) was recommended to me by Buried in Print, and it was an excellent place to start reading. It deals not just with a mixed race child but the entire community in which he grows up. Jimmy Kumachuk is a much loved child, but he is a boy who lives between two disparate groups of people not entirely part of either. I always find stories like this fascinating--reading about the sense of dislocation people feel when traveling (both literally and figuratively) between cultures--in this case the Inuit and white communities.
Elsa Kumachuk reminds me just the tiniest bit of Emma Bovary. They don't really resemble each other and their stories are really quite different, but like Emma, Elsa is a dreamer. She sees the world not as the harsh place it is or can be but has a more romanticized view of it. The story opens with Elsa returning home from seeing a movie with her girlfriends (there were two shows a week--one for whites and one for Eskimos as the local pastor thought it best not to mix the groups) when she is pulled into a thicket of trees and raped. But it's with a bland sort of acceptance that Elsa deals with her situation.
"She herself seemed neither depressed nor pleased. It was a thing that happened. That it should happen before marriage caused no discredit here. Rather the contrary. Elsa's parents displayed no indignation. They confined themselves to teasing her: so she'd been in a hurry to taste it, had she?"
The child that arrives as a result is obviously the son of an American GI who will soon leave the beautiful but bleak coldness of northern Labrador for the sweltering jungles of Vietnam, but it matters not a whit to Elsa or her family. She gives birth without a whimper, and then "everything changed for her". Such a beautiful little boy.
"Elsa looked, and what she saw caught her by surprise, took her breath away so completely it seemed it would never be restored."
And she becomes subsumed by little Jimmy. She herself is dark and small and Jimmy all lightness and pale features. She spends hours caring for him, bathing him and dressing him. She begins working in the home of the local policeman and his wife when she would prefer to spend all her time with Jimmy. But when she sees what she can buy for the child with her wages, she cannot bear to give up her job. And everything Madame Beaulieu says, all her advice, is taken to heart by Elsa. She "took advice from no one but the white people".
The entire Eskimo community loves Jimmy, however. Perhaps for his fairness and fine features? Elsa now compares her life and that of her family to those of the white community and her own is found wanting. No longer is her parent's hut or the lackadaisical way he's taken care of good enough. She would take Jimmy to a special place on the beach away from everyone else to picnic and play, beyond the homes and reach of her family, but she's reproached by the local pastor for her extremes. Before she was all carelessness and now all care and he fears she will only raise Jimmy to be ashamed of her Eskimo family and their ways.
And so the pendulum swings the other way. It's for her own sake as much as for Jimmy's that she takes him across the river to an older settlement where her uncle lives away from almost everyone to raise him more purely and simply and closer to her Eskimo heritage. The fear is already a small seed planted in her mind of the possibility of losing Jimmy.
"If she were not careful, the white men would be quite capable of one day or another of taking him away from her--the more so as he was one of their own and she had never felt tht her own right to him was complete. This is what she gathered finally from the pastor's warning. And so it was that the resolution to flee everything that had once so attracted her took possession of Elsa's mind."
For a while the two live blissfully with Elsa's uncle, but the outside world again encroaches when Jimmy is old enough to go to school. And what Elsa fears comes to pass, but not in exactly the way she had thought. The pendulum swings back again and they return to their Eskimo community but live half in and half out of the white world for Jimmy cannot be mistaken for an Inuit boy despite Elsa being his mother. It's with great difficulty and little success that the two try to live in both worlds. Elsa gives everything in order for Jimmy to have all the advantages due him. She gives so much that nothing is left for herself and in the end she still loses her son.
"But all at once she sensed the uselessness of going on. Several times already she had felt that she was being stared at by her own child with the same cool measuring quality she had seen in the eyes of the soldiers as they filed by on the icy road. Today there was scarcely anymore doubt: Jimmy was looking at her with the eyes of a stranger."
Windflower is an often sad and poignant story of motherhood, identity and of a society undergoing tremendous changes. The editor describes the underlying theme as "how to live" and certainly Roy raises many thoughtful questions that are as pertinent today as when the book was published in 1970. My copy now has lots of dog-eared pages and I can imagine this story being an excellent one to provoke some good discussions. I've already acquired two more of her novels and a book of short stories and I'm looking forward to reading more by her soon.