Gabrielle Roy was born in St. Boniface in 1909, the youngest of 11 children. Her father worked at a federal settlement officer, but when he lost his job, Roy ’s mother supported the family by sewing. Roy was a sickly child, but an excellent student. She attended the Winnipeg Normal Institute and received her teaching certification in 1929, and taught in small communities before accepting a job at the Académie Provencher in St. Boniface. There she became involved in a theatre troupe that promoted Franco-Manitoban culture. In 1937, she moved to Europe to study theatre. In 1939, she returned to Canada and settled in Montreal. In 1947, Roy met her husband, and the two moved to France for three years, before returning to Montreal in 1950. From there, they moved to Quebec City, where she lived out her years, passing away in 1983 from heart failure.
Gabrielle Roy’s first and perhaps best-known work is the novel Bonheur d’occasion (1945) which was translated in 1947 in the States by Hannah Josephson as The Tin Flute, and again in 1980 for Canada by Allan Brown. The story is set in WWII Montreal, and follows the stories of a poor family living in the St-Henri district. It marks a significant shift in French-Canadian literature, for the first time realistically depicting the reality of life in the city and the effects of the war on the society. She is the first Canadian to win France’s Prix Femina for this novel, and also won the Governor-General’s Award in 1947 for the translated work.
Her early works of fiction usually fall under two categories: gripping realist tales from the city, or nostalgic semi-autobiographical tales from the country. Her second novel La petite poule d’eau (1950) falls in the latter category. Inspired by the people she met while teaching in small town in Manitoba, the novel features a family living on an isolated farm. Her next work, Alexandre Chenevert (1954) returns to the city and deals with post-WWII Montreal . Rue Deschambault (1955) closely reflects Roy ’s life growing up in St. Boniface. Translated as Streets of Riches, the book won a Governor-General’s Award in 1957.
Later, after her extensive travels, Roy writes about the need for solitude for artistic invention in La montagne secrète (1961). In La route d’Alamont (1966), Roy returns to the characters from Rue Deschanbault to explore the complicated relationship between mother and daughter. In La rivière sans repos (1970), Roy tells the story of a young Inuit woman who becomes pregnant by an American GI who struggles with her child’s dual heritage.
Gabrielle Roy was awarded a Canada Council Medal and an honorary degree from Université Laval in 1968, and the Prix David in 1971. In 1984, Roy published La détresse et l’enchantement, an autobiography of her early life in St. Boniface before leaving for England. (Lee Skallerup)
Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services