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Where Nests the Water Hen

by Gabrielle Roy
afterword by Sandra Birdsell

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classics, small town & rural, non-classifiable
list price: $17.95
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
category: Fiction
published: 2010
ISBN:9780771093876
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Description

The story of Where Nests the Water Hen is as pure as the lives of the people in it – and as unforgettable. Set in the remote wilderness of northern Manitoba, this sunny, tender idyll of daily frontier life captures, as few novels ever have, the spirit and the surroundings of the pioneers – not the adventurers and trailblazers who make the headlines, but rather the humble folk who follow after and remain, living out their lives in obscurity to keep the trails open.

Where Nests the Water Hen, Gabrielle Roy’s second novel, is a sensitive and sympathetic tale that captures both the innocence and the vitality of a sparsely populated frontier.

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Excerpt

Luzina Takes A Holiday

Deep within the Canadian province of Manitoba, remote in its melancholy region of lakes and wild waterfowl, there lies a tiny village barely noticeable amidst its skimpy fir trees. On the map you will find it called Meadow Portage, but it is known to the people who live thereabouts as Portage des Prés. To reach it you must cover a full thirty-two miles of jolty road beyond Rorke ton, the terminus of the branch railroad and the nearest town. In all, it contains a chapel, visited three or four times a year by an aged missionary, polyglot and loqua cious; a boxlike structure built of new planks and serving as school for the handful of white children in the area; and another building, also of boards but a bit larger, the most important in the settlement, since it houses at once the store, the post office, and the telephone. Somewhat farther away you can see, in a clearing among the birches, two other dwellings which, together with the store-post-office, shelter all Portage des Prés’s inhabitants. But I nearly forgot: in front of the largest structure, at the edge of the rough track leading to Rorketon, proudly stands a lone gasoline pump, complete with its large glass globe, ever awaiting the arrival of electricity. Beyond these few things, a wilderness of grass and wind. One of the houses, indeed, possesses a front door, inserted at the level of its second floor, yet since no one has bothered to build for it either a landing or a flight of steps, nothing could better express the idea of utter uselessness. Across the façade of the large building are painted the words bessette’s general store. And that is absolutely all there is at Portage des Prés. It is the image of the final jumping-off place. And yet the Tousignant family lived, some twenty years ago, even beyond this outpost.
 
 
To reach their home from Portage des Prés, you had to continue straight on beyond the gas pump, following the same crude road; at first glance you could scarcely make it out, but finally you saw how it ran thanks to two parallel bands of grass which remained a trifle flattened by the passage of the Indians’ light buckboards. Only an old resident or a half-breed guide could find his way along it, for at several points this track divided, and secondary tracks led through the brush to some trapper’s cabin two or three miles away and invisible from the main trail.
 
You had, then, to stick closely to the most direct road. And a few hours later, if you were riding in a buggy – a little sooner if travelling in one of those ancient Fords which still operate in those parts – you should reach the Big Water Hen River.
 
There you left Ford or buggy behind.
 
The Tousignants had a canoe to cross the river. Were it on the farther shore, someone would have to swim over to get it. You then continued downstream, wholly wrapped in such silence as is seldom found on earth – or rather, in the rustle of sedges, the beat of wings, in the thousands of tiny, hidden, secret, timid sounds, producing an effect in some way as restful as silence itself. Big prairie chickens, almost too heavy to fly, heaved themselves above the river’s brush-covered banks and tumbled back to earth, already tired by their listless efforts.
 
Clambering out on the opposite shore, you crossed on foot an island half a mile wide, covered with thick, uneven grass, mud holes and, in summer, enormous and famished mosquitoes swarming up by the million from the spongy ground.
 
You then reached another river. It was the Little Water Hen. The people of the region had had no great trouble in naming its geographical features – always in honour of its senior inhabitant, that small grey fowl which epitomized all its tedium and all its quietness. Apart from the two rivers already mentioned, there was the Water Hen – unqualified – there was Lake Water Hen. Moreover, the area itself was known as the Water Hen Country. And it was endlessly peaceful, there, to watch of an evening the aquatic birds rising up everywhere from among the reeds and circling together in one sector of the heavens which they darkened with their multitude.
 
When you had crossed the Little Water Hen, you landed on a fair-sized island with few trees. A large flock of sheep were at pasture there, completely free and unfenced; had it not been for them, you would have thought the island uninhabited.
 
But there was a house built upon it.
 
Built of unsquared logs, level with the ground, longer than it was wide, its windows set low, it stood upon a very slight elevation on the island’s surface, bare to the four winds of heaven.
 
Here it was that the Tousignants lived.
 
Of their eight handsome children, shy yet tractable, one alone had journeyed as far as the village of Sainte Rose du Lac to be treated for a very bad earache. This was the nearest French settlement in the area; it was situated even farther away than Rorketon, on the local railway which in some measure linked all this bush to the little town of Dauphin. A few of the other children had from time to time accompanied their father when, two or three times a year, he journeyed to Portage des Prés to get his orders from the owner of the ranch under his management.
 
It was the mother who travelled the most. Almost every year she of necessity went to Sainte Rose du Lac. If there were the slightest hitch, you could spend days getting there; all the same, since she quit her island approximately but once a year, this long, hard trip, frequently hazardous, always exhausting, had come to be regarded by Luzina Tousignant as her annual holiday. Never did she refer to it far in advance before the children, for they were, you might say, too attached to their mother, very tender, very affectionate, and it was a painful business for them to let her go; they would cling fast to her skirts, begging her not to leave. So it was better not to arouse this grief any sooner than necessary. To her husband alone one fine day she would announce, with an odd look half laughter and half sorrow, “My holiday is not far off.” Then she would depart. And in this changeless existence, it was the great, the sole adventure.

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Contributor notes

Gabrielle Roy was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba, in 1909. Her parents were part of the large Quebec emigration to western Canada in the late nineteenth century. The youngest of eight children, she studied in a convent school for twelve years, then taught school herself, first in isolated Manitoba villages and later in St. Boniface.

In 1937 Roy travelled to Europe to study drama, and during two years spent in London and Paris she began her writing career. The approaching war forced her to return to Canada, and she settled in Montreal.

Roy’s first novel, The Tin Flute, ushered in a new era of realism in Quebec fiction with its compassionate depiction of a working-class family in Montreal’s Saint-Henri district. Her later fiction often turned for its inspiration to the Manitoba of her childhood and her teaching career.

In 1947 Roy married Dr. Marcel Carbotte, and after a few years in France, they settled in Quebec City, which was to remain their home. Roy complemented her fiction with essays, reflective collections, and three children’s books. Her many honours include three Governor General’s Awards, France’s Prix Fémina, and Quebec’s Prix David.

Gabrielle Roy died in Quebec City, Quebec, in 1983.

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