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Mister Roger and Me by Marie-Renée Lavoie – Québec City in the 1980s and Lady Oscar

January 24, 2021 12 comments

Mr Roger and Me by Marie-Renée Lavoie (2010) Original French Canadian title: La petite et le vieux.

J’étais parvenue à me convaincre que j’étais un garçon et je tenais à ce qu’on m’appelle Joe. J’aurais aimé Oscar, comme mon personnage de dessins animés préféré mais, à l’époque, Oscar était le squelette des classes de biologie et un nouveau type de balai révolutionnaire. Alors je me contentais de Joe, même si sa syllabe en cul-de poule sonnait comme une banale exclamation. Quand on évitait de penser aux Dalton, ça pouvait faire sérieux.

I had managed to convince myself that I was a boy and I wanted people to call me Joe. I would have preferred Oscar, like my favorite anime character, but at the time, Oscar was the name of skeletons in biology classes and a new type of revolutionary broom. I settled with Joe, even if its pouting syllable sounded like an ordinary exclamation. If you didn’t think about the Daltons, Joe could be a serious name. (my translation)

This is Hélène speaking. She’s the heroine of La petite et le vieux by Marie-Renée Lavoie. Hélène is an adult now and she remembers her life when she was eight-year-old. We’re in a working-class neighbourhood in Québec City, in the 1980s. Hélène is obsessed with Lady Oscar, the Japanese anime set in France just before the French Revolution.

I’m not sure English-speaking readers know about Lady Oscar anime. It is based on the manga The Rose of Versailles by Riyoko Ikeda. According to Wikipedia, the anime was broadcasted in Québec and in France in 1986 and I remember seeing it on the French TV. In this series, Lady Oscar is a woman, educated as a boy by a father who was tired of having only daughters. Her military education helps her join the royal guard and, dressed as a man, she becomes Oscar who protects the young Marie-Antoinette. With her best friend André, they live all kinds of dangerous adventures.

So, our heroine Hélène wants to be like Lady Oscar. She wishes she were a boy and when in difficulty, she always wonders “What would Lady Oscar do?”

Hélène lives with her parents and her sisters Margot and Catherine. She’s in a loving home but her parents struggle financially. It’s hard to make ends meet. Her father is a middle-school teacher, a job he doesn’t do by choice and it weighs on him. Hélène decides to help her parents and gets odd jobs like distributing newspapers or serving drinks at bingo afternoons.

Then Mr Roger moves into her neighbourhood. He’s Hélène’s polar opposite. He’s old, grumpy and always talking about his upcoming death. He drinks too much. He’s lonely and at odds with his family. And yet, they strike an odd friendship and become daily companions.

Through Hélène’s eyes, we see the life of her neighborhood and the Québec society of the time. It’s the life of a child who accidentally discovers how poor one of her classmates is and who talks about her school life. She’s hardworking, running around the neighborhood before dawn with her newspapers. She thinks she’s on her own but we understand that some adults watch her.

Hélène describes her family life, her father’s struggles with his job, her mother’s planed meals and all kinds of everyday life’s events. She sees the world through Lady Oscar lenses and keeps her innocence because she’s too young to know much about the world. And yet, event after event, she gets a greater picture of the world around her and we understand that her home life is not as easy as she thinks it is. I wonder how much of Lavoie is in Hélène as she was born in 1974 and grew up in the Limoilou neighborhood in Québec city.

The quote at the beginning of the novel comes from The Kites, by Romain Gary: « Rien ne vaut la peine d’être vécu qui n’est pas d’abord une œuvre d’imagination ou alors la mer de serait plus que de l’eau salée… ». (“Nothing is worth living that is not first a work of imagination, otherwise the sea would only be salted water…”)

Hélène’s imagination works around Lady Oscar and her adventures. The anime seeps into her life, enticing her to see things through her own glasses and to be brave, to take chances. Hélène comes to life thanks to a lively and poetic prose and her unique view of the world. Although the Gary quote comes from The Kites, La petite et le vieux compares better to La vie devant soi and the relationship between young Momo and old Madame Rosa.

I don’t know how Wayne Grady translated French Canadian into English. As always, I enjoyed the specific expressions and Marie-Renée Lavoie’s style is sensitive and imaginative.

It also reminded me of Michel Tremblay and the Mont-Royal series set in Montreal in the 1940s for its child characters, its working-class neighborhood and the darkness under the apparent lightness of the children’s views of the world.

La petite et le vieux is a lovely novel. It’s not a postcard picture of Hélène’s childhood but a realistic one. It’s a Doisneau vision of a neighborhood, with Hélène catching the beauty where it is and bringing joy with her irony and positive thinking.

A great read if you’re looking for a book that will take you somewhere else and won’t wear you out with its grimness.

PS: I prefer the Québec cover to the English one. What about you? 

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