The Tin Flute has been on my list for years, and I’ve collected various editions in that time, until now all of them sitting unread on shelves or in boxes, the victims of good intentions and bad moods. I had meant, well and truly meant, to read the book when I found myself laid off in 2011 and spent fifteen months unemployed, but the copy I had at the time1 was so fragile I didn’t believe it would survive the attempt. The copy I did manage to read, a New Canadian Library edition, fittingly perhaps, from 1967, was a gift from a former professor at the University of Waterloo. I was just as afraid for it, but it turned out to be hardier than it looked. Hugo McPherson’s2 introduction was not promising, and he goes out of his way to warn readers about the flaws in Hannah Josephson’s translation, but it was actually quite good, without a trace of translatorese.3 Some of the vulgarities McPherson urged translators to save us from might have made it even better, but 1967 was a different time in so many ways.
I don’t know if it is the hammer or the anvil, but The Tin Flute left me destroyed. This is not to say that Roy is unsubtle, only that she is unrelenting in finding the reader’s softest, weakest places, and striking with force until there are no defences left at all. And yet the novel never feels manipulative beyond the boundaries that good fiction always is. I can’t tell you if her depiction of the poverty in Saint-Henri is accurate—though it seems from the reaction to the novel that local readers believed it to be so—what I can tell you is that it feels accurate, and deeply familiar. I had a strange childhood, in that I had a foot in both the working class and the middle class. Neither of my parents made much money, but my stepfather has always done quite well. There was a brief time after my parents divorced where my mother and I lived in what I would later come to realize was serious poverty—one of my high school friends babysat for a family who lived in a place my mother had rented during that period, the house where we had to move our beds away from the walls at night in the winter or we would wake up frozen to them. The family wasn’t really any worse off than we had been, but my friend, not knowing, made a point of telling me that she didn’t think anyone our town had to live in that kind of severe poverty. My father worked hard, and still does, but was always borrowing money or doing without in order to keep us afloat. We had our house, because my father built it himself, but if he hadn’t I don’t know what our living situation would have been like. It helped that we lived in a region where the basic cost of living was very low.4 Our situation was better with my mother and stepfather, but going from one home to the other felt like stepping from one class to another. I heard the word no around money a lot, in circumstances where I know very well my friends were mostly hearing yes.
One memory that stands out in particular is remarkable not only for its impact, but for how small it was, and how petty my desires seem to me now. There was a toy I wanted at Robinson’s department store, a Transformer called Razorclaw.5 I don’t remember how much money it cost, but it seemed like a lot, and given that licensed plastic trash wasn’t any cheaper then than it is now, it probably was. I wanted that thing so badly, though I today I couldn’t tell you why. My parents refused to buy it for me, and for good reason: it was expensive, I didn’t need it, my desire for it was probably fleeting at best, and anyway, they couldn’t afford it. What they said was that I could have it if I saved up my allowance (when they remembered to give me one), my birthday and Christmas money, and so on.6 So I did. I scrimped and saved and put things aside and did without and all the rest of the stuff that you’re supposed to do when you want something. I worked hard, insofar as it was possible for a kid my age in a town like mine in the mid-1980s. After however many months it was, I don’t remember exactly, but a few, I went back to that store to buy my toy. And the fucking thing was gone. It had been sold days later, to some kid whose parents had money, and because this was Dryden in the 1980s, there was no such thing as restocking the toy, no other store to go where I could by another one, no place to order it. It was gone, and no matter how much I wanted it, no matter how hard I had worked to get it, no matter how much I did everything right, it would never be mine. It would belong to some kid whose parents had money. I would have to learn to want something else. I was utterly distraught, as only children with their eye on a toy can be. I know the intended lesson was about hard work paying off, but here is the lesson I actually learned from that experience: hard work is meaningless if you don’t have the money now, that when you are poor the delayed gratification of any consumer desire—of most desires—is a pointless waste, an invitation for someone with money and power to take away what little satisfaction your labour can give you. If you have the money in your pocket now, do with it the thing that will make you happy today, because tomorrow you may not have that money, or if you do, the thing that might bring you happiness will be gone and you will have to hope that something else might make you happy. You have to learn to want something else. Scenarios like the one with the toy happened with greater and greater frequency as I got older, with bigger and more important things,7 and I have had to re-learn this lesson over and over again. It never hurts any less.
Hannah Josephson, as far as I can tell the translator who gave The Tin Flute its English title,8 used an image from a similar moment, as Florentine watches her mother experience it from a parent’s perspective:
At the other end of the store, Rose-Anna had stopped at the toy counter, and picked up a little tin flute. As a salesgirl approached, however, she put it down hastily, and Florentine knew that Daniel’s desire for the flute would never be any closer to realization than this. Her mother’s good intention was quickly suppressed. Likewise between her desire to help Rose-Anna and the peace of mind her mother would probably never have, nothing would be left but the aching memory of a good intention.
I don’t know how many times I saw, or ought to have seen, my own parents experience these moments of pain and anxiety, my father especially, but certainly more than I can count. The lives of the Lacasse family, the lives of nearly all the characters in The Tin Flute are built around moments like this, as they march never-ending through the lives of the poor.
Most of my experiences with poverty, however, the deepest and longest ones, came in adulthood. I’ve lived in apartments that flooded every time it rained, infested with spiders and centipedes. I’ve lived in apartments with no heat in the winter, where we had to leave the oven on with the door open and fill the bathtub with hot water to keep warm, and apartments so small I’ve had to keep my dresser in the kitchen, a two-person table cut in half and nailed to the wall so I could have a place to set my bowl and eat. I’ve had to choose between feeding my cat and feeding myself.9 I’ve been threatened with lawsuits over my student loans, and had to borrow money to attend my best friend’s wedding. I went more than a decade without a trip to the dentist. I have gone to the grocery store with a plastic baggie filled with nickels and dimes, the tax carefully calculated in advance, so that I could buy enough instant noodles to eat at least one meal a day for the rest of the week. I’ve gone days without food, and routinely skipped meals so I could be sure to make rent. Gone to work when I was so sick I could barely stand or even speak, because I couldn’t afford not to. I’ve lost my apartment twice due to an inability to make rent, wore my clothes until they were rags, and worn shoes until they were falling off my feet because I had no other choice. I’ve been told being poor meant I was lazy, stupid, and worthless by people I thought were friends, by colleagues, by partners, and by total strangers, with almost no one ever bothering to hide the reason why. I hope that I’ve put those days behind me, but nevertheless, the people of Saint-Henri are my people, no matter what province they live in or what language they speak.
All of this weight was sitting on my chest as I read The Tin Flute.
It’s hard to say who is at the centre of the novel; certainly the Lacasse family, Florentine and Rose-Anne in particular, but the focus shifts to others in the quarter, to striving Jean Lévesque, to idealistic Emmanuel Létourneau, to the unemployed men at Ma Philibert’s store or the Two Records restaurant, and to the waitresses who toil all day alongside Florentine. The viewpoint isn’t stable, so instead the readers are given not just the Lacasse family from inside their suffering, but how they are seen by others as well, and the broader condition of Saint-Henri as Canada gears up for war, trying mightily to shake off the Great Depression and often failing. Each of them has a different relationship with poverty—Emmanuel is the closest thing to a middle class character in The Tin Flute, and so the only character who is truly living for ideals—and each wears their despair differently. For some lucky few it is motivating, at the cost of a selfishness that eliminates the possibility that they feel any true fellow-feeling, for others it is a crushing weight, an utter lack of hope. Some, like Florentine, cycle through hope, ambition, and despair, and make choices to gain the stability, the peace of mind that Rose-Anna can never achieve, that many readers who have never been poor might consider awful, dishonest, or even cruel.
It falls, as it almost always does, on the women of the Lacasse family to achieve that stability. Jean, whom Florentine loves, seeks it only for himself, and her father Azarius has lived with a trampled sense of identity so long that he’s no longer able to tell legitimate opportunities apart from schemes. He reminds me, in that sense at least, of the parents of some friends I grew up with. It’s not that his ideas are necessarily terrible—the furniture business was a good idea, and its failure was not his fault—but that they rely so much on luck, on so many parts outside of his control moving in just the right way, that they have no hope of success. I understand the impulse behind it, and it’s similar to the impulse behind why poor people play the lottery; after enough time during which your hard work fails to pay off in any meaningful way, the odds of winning the lottery truly seem no worse than any other method of getting money, and at least your back won’t be sore at the end of it. And the thought of saving every penny for a rainy day, taking no risks, enjoying nothing, never not working? Well, Jesus Christ himself never had such discipline, and as Jean shows, the few that do are seldom the kind of people you’d actually want to become. There is, on top of all that, an ever-present urge to self-destruct. When you live with the knowledge that you will never step out of poverty, spending a few dollars here and there on an immediate pleasure that will, in the long-run, make your life worse, is almost too powerful to resist. Florentine’s silk stockings and movie tickets, the money Azarius spends at the restaurant; all of it could go toward rent, or shoes, or food, but what would it matter? They will starve regardless if it’s by ounces or by pounds. It falls, then, to Rose-Anne and Florentine to keep the family afloat, and they do. Rose-Anne submerges herself to the twin doctrines of Roman-Catholic motherhood and respectable poverty, having a family so large they can’t afford to feed half of them, and keeping the kids out of school, denying them one of their few opportunities for something better, because the state of the children’s clothes would be seen, and the shame of showing the world their poverty would be too great. Florentine, the family’s other breadwinner, flips back and forth between pride at being so significant a help, and rage at its necessity, how small she feels in the face of those who have more than her, and how it holds her back, and isolates her.
Isolation is The Tin Flute‘s other great theme. Saint-Henri seems bustling to the point of being over-populated, full of huge families and people on every corner who know you and your business, can tell who a character’s parents or siblings are because they recognize this or that feature in their face. And every one of these characters feels powerfully alone. There are so many members of the Lacasse family that I’ve literally forgotten how many of them there are. They have to sleep on cots set up on every available spot of floor, whispers while the others are asleep the closest any of them get to a moment of privacy, but their inner lives are almost entirely hidden from each other. Rose-Anna can’t talk to Florentine about her constant anxiety, or her fear that she’s lost the affection of her son Daniel to an anglo nurse named Jenny; Florentine can’t tell her friend Marguerite about the affair that left her pregnant; Azarius can’t tell Rose-Anne about how afraid he is that his failures have made her life worse—and not one of them can even say the words “I love you,” except Emmanuel, the only one who doesn’t live in the deepest poverty. For the Lacasse family and everyone else in Saint-Henri who lives in poverty, their economic status is tied up in every part of their identity in a way that makes directness and emotional honesty impossible.
The Tin Flute is far and away the strongest of the three novels I’ve read so far for my Canada 150 project, and the one that hits closest to home. I wanted very much to be analytical about this book, but I found that I couldn’t be; too much of myself and my past came up and wouldn’t go away. There are some books that I can, to an extent, step away from and see in terms of what it’s trying to do, independent of my reaction to it. I can even see how other people might read it, what they might get or not get from it. Not so with this one: I am entirely incapable of seeing The Tin Flute except in terms of myself. There is no distance here. There is only the hammer and the anvil.