Home > 1980, 20th Century, Canadian Literature, Highly Recommended, Novel, Quebec Literature, Tremblay Michel > Thérèse, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay – Montreal in 1942

Thérèse, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay – Montreal in 1942

September 27, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay (1980) Original French (Québec) title: Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saints-Anges.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is the second volume of the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal. Michel Tremblay wrote a six books saga about the French-speaking working-class neighbourhood of Montreal, the Plateau Mont-Royal. We discovered a few families in the first volume, The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant.

In the first volume, everything happens in one day, May 2nd, 1942. In this one, the story is spread in the four days before the religious gathering, la Fête-Dieu. We are in June 1942. Thérèse, Pierrette and Simone are best friends and attend together the catholic school of the Saints-Anges. The book opens to a very special day, Simone is back to school after her operation. She used to have a harelip and now she’s pretty. It’s a big day for her and her friends.

Tremblay weaves several story threads into a vivid tapestry of these four days.

One strand is related to the religious community who runs the school of the Saints-Anges. The headmaster is Mother Benoîte des Anges. She’s a despotic and cruel to the sisters she manages and is supposed to guide. She’s unkind to the pupils and contemptuous in her interactions with their families. It is well-known that she lacks a lot of basic human qualities but she’s good with managing the school’s budget, so she stays.

Tremblay shows us the relationships between the sisters, how each of them has her place and her reputation. Some are good friends, some may be more than friends and some barely tolerate each other. They live in a close circle and have to make do with everyone’s temper and specificities. They all live in fear of Mother Benoîte and the only one who dares to confront her is Sister Sainte-Catherine.

Tremblay shows us a catholic school with a headmaster whose behaviour is in total contradiction with the New Testament. Mother Benoîte summons a trembling Simone in her office to berate her: her parents say they’re too poor to pay their subscription to the school magazine and yet they can afford Simone’s operation. She must bring the money the next day. Instead of being happy for the girl, she only thinks about money. The truth is that Simone’s doctor arranged for a surgeon to take her as a pro-bono case. Her parents would never have been able to afford the operation. The scene where the doctor and Simone’s mother confront Mother Benoîte is sublime, the revolt of poor people who do as best they can and do not need more humiliation than the more already inflicted on them by poverty.

In that time the Catholic church had the same hold on French-Canadians as it had on Irish people. I don’t think it had the same power in France at the time, not with the strong anti-clerical movement in the French society.

Another thread is the friendship between Pierrette, Thérèse and Simone. Tremblay pictures the games, the relationships between the pupils, their interactions with the nuns. We see them in class, preparing the Fête-Dieu, a big parade, slightly ridiculous but very important to them. Who’s going to play Mary? Who’s going to be the hanging angel? This is childhood in its universal form and characters in the make. Thérèse is the leader and she’s a bit calculating. Simone is insecure and got her insecurity from her harelip. Now that she feels pretty, her confidence is growing. Pierrette is the kind one, the peace maker.

Boys and flirting make their appearance in the girls’ lives. Simone’s brother adores Pierrette and follows her with his puppy-love. It’s funny and lovely. Thérèse too, has an admirer. Hers isn’t a puppy. He’s a wolf named Gérard. He’s 21 and is obsessed with Thérèse, following her, staying near the school gates to watch her. Tremblay brings in this dark thread and I trembled for Thérèse, hoping nothing would happen to her.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is a vivid picture of these four days of 1942. It sends direct punches to the Catholic institutions and the way they mistreat the people they should take care of. Their lack of compassion is shocking. It brings us to Montreal in 1942, into a poor neighbourhood and their attaching inhabitants. I was happy to be reunited with Thérèse, Pierrette, Simone and their families.

I love French from Québec and I had a lot of fun observing Tremblay’s language. It’s full of English words inserted in French sentences and I don’t always understand how they came with the gender of the words. Some English words have been translated into French. For example, Tremblay mentions un bâton de hockey, the literal translation of a hockey stick, aka une crosse de hockey. He also says un bat de baseball (direct use of the English word) when we now say une batte de baseball. Tremblay’s French is a delight and an homage to his origins. Contrary to Mother Benoîte, Tremblay loves these struggling families. Highly recommended.

The next volume is centered around another family member, Edouard.

PS: I should set up a contest about the ugliest cover ever. The Québec cover is a bit dark but true to the book. But tell me, who would buy Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel on impulse with this ugly and silly cover?

  1. September 27, 2020 at 2:13 pm

    The cover is awful! It does sound like a very powerful story though, set in a time and place I know very little about.

    Like

    • September 27, 2020 at 6:08 pm

      It’s a terrible cover.
      It’s a great book, I hope it’s available in English and not out of print.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. September 27, 2020 at 6:34 pm

    I really want to read Tremblay. I think February might have a bout of Canadian literature coming on…

    Like

    • October 1, 2020 at 7:56 pm

      Great idea. February would be the best month to read Tremblay or Bohneur d’Occasion.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. September 27, 2020 at 7:04 pm

    My local library has “La grosse femme d’a côté est enceinte” so I can easily start with that one. I’ve enjoyed all the Quebec books I’ve read so far, starting with Bonheur d’occasion (as you well know).

    Like

    • October 1, 2020 at 7:58 pm

      I’m always amazed at the number of French language books you can get in your library.
      I think you’ll like Tremblay.

      Like

      • October 3, 2020 at 7:40 pm

        Overall I’m quite lucky indeed. There’s the Institut francais library with plenty of literature and social sciences, and other normal municipal libraries (mostly for Hungarian books but some foreign as well), but my favourite is the Foreign Languages Library and yes, they have so many books including some completely non obvious books. It’s almost a blessing that most of the books are not on open display but must be ordered from the catalogue. It would be impossible to choose otherwise.

        Like

        • October 4, 2020 at 10:16 pm

          That’s great.

          Like

  4. September 27, 2020 at 8:28 pm

    There are many times I regret not knowing another language really well and this is one of them. It must be wonderful to appreciate the differences in the French in these books. That cover is abysmal, even the type looks like it should be on a government publication not a novel.

    Like

    • October 1, 2020 at 8:03 pm

      Let’s say that, as far as French is concerned, it’s quite normal that I pick all the differences. I really like French from Québec with all their quirky expressions.
      Do you speak French?

      I can see differences between American/British/Australian English but I’m not sure I’d see regional differences. Well, except when I read my first James Lee Burke set in Louisiana, sometimes I could hear French expressions in his English.

      Like

      • October 2, 2020 at 8:15 pm

        The irony is though I took several years of French in high school I remember less of it than the bits and pieces of Japanese and Russian I’ve picked up over the years, but I don’t know those languages by any stretch of the imagination.

        Like

        • October 4, 2020 at 10:15 pm

          I’m the same with German. Years of classes, unable to utter a sentence.

          Liked by 1 person

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