This feels like a quintessential Mavis Gallant story: expectations and disappointments swirling around a young girl’s form, as she begins to assemble a set of truths about the world.
Although the setting appears to be so familiar as to render the act of description unnecessary, the author’s eye for detail is remarable.
As unfamiliar as the scene must be for contemporary readers, it is easy to picture.
“It was a town like many others in the St. Lawrence Valley – old, but with a curious atmosphere of harshness, as if the whole area were still frontier and had not been settled and cultivated for three hundred years. There were rows of temporary-looking frame and stucco houses, a post office in somebody’s living room, a Chinese fish-and-chip store, and, on the lawn of the imposing Catholic church, a statue of Jesus, arms extended, crowned with a wreath of electric lights. Running straight through the center of town was a narrow river; a few leaky rowboats were tied up along its banks, and on Sunday afternoons hot, church-dressed young men would go to work on them with rusty bailing tins. The girls who clustered giggling on shore and watched them wore pastel stockings, lacy summer hats, and voile dresses that dipped down in back and were decorated low on one hip with sprays of artificial lilac. For additional Sunday divertissement, there was the cinema, in an old barn near the railway station.”
Our narrator is remembering a summer when she was seven or eight years old in this town, when she lived there with her father, who had only been in Canada for eight or nine years.
She is remembering the way that her father used to remember his boyhood in England before the First World War, where it was “green, sunny, and silent”, “landscape flickering and flooded with light, like the old silents at the cinema”.
Their housekeeper was a “fierce-looking local girl called Pauline”, so ill-tempered that she was called P’tit-Loup (Little Wolf). She cooked abominably and had a pronounced mustache.
Her piano teacher, Madame Tessier, was the convent-educated wife of a farmer, who persevered twice a week with the girl, until it was known that she had no piano at home for practice.
It was easier for this young girl to define herself by what she was not. For instance, she knew that she was not a Catholic, because she attended the Pensionnat Saint-Louis de Ganzague in Montreal and did not take First Communion like the Catholic children.
So, she is not Catholic and she is not French-Canadian. This, too, she knows because of something that is missing in her story, something that does not happen.
“All of the French-Canadian fathers in the town worked. They delivered milk, they farmed, they owned rival hardware stores, they drew up one another’s wills. Nor were they the only busy ones. Across the river, in a faithful reproduction of a suburb of Glasgow or Manchester, lived a small colony of English-speaking summer residents from Montreal. Their children were called Al, Lily, Winnie, or Mac, and they were distinguished by their popping blue eyes, their excessive devotion to the Royal Family, and their contempt for anything even vaguely queer or Gallic. Like the French-Canadians, the fathers of Lily and Winnie and the others worked. Every one of them had a job.”
Her relationship with her father is key, and here, too, he is defined by the things he does not do.
“He was not like any father I had met or read about. He was not Elsie’s Mr. Dinsmore, stern but swayed by tears. Nor did he in the least resemble Mr. Bobbsey, of the Bobbsey Twins books, or Mr. Bunker, of the Six Little Bunkers. I was never scolded, or rebuked, or reminded to brush my teeth or say my prayers. My father was perfectly content to live his own summer and let me live mine, which did not please me in the least. If, at meals, I failed to drink my milk, it was I who had to mention this omission. When I came home from swimming with my hair wet, it was I who had to remind him that, because of some ear trouble that was a hangover of scarlet fever, I was supposed to wear a bathing cap. When Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame finally arrived at the cinema, he did not say a word about my not going, even though Lily and Winnie and many of the French-Canadian children were not allowed to attend, and boasted about the restriction.”
What her father DOES is actually rather problematic. He is a painter, an artist, although his efforts at portraiture are not always to the subject’s specifications or satisfaction.
It is not until a local business is seeking a painter, that her father appears to be some use. Perhaps he can work after all. “Wing’s Chips” needs a new sign for the business. Finally, her father can make a recognisable contribution to the community.
“’Just ‘Wing’s Chips’?’ my father asked. ‘Or would you like it in French – ‘Les Chips de Wing’?’
‘Oh, English,’ said all the Wings, almost together. My father said later that the Chinese were terrible snobs.”
The Wing family is also defined primarily by what they are not. Despite their perfect language skills and skill with chip-making, they are not English.
“The smaller Wings, in the winter months, attended Anglican boarding schools in the west, at a discreet distance from the source of income. Their English was excellent and their French-Canadian idiom without flaw. Those nearest my age were Florence, Marjorie, Ronald, and Hugh. The older set of brothers and cousins – those of my father’s generation – had abrupt, utilitarian names: Tommy, Jimmy, George. The still older people – most of whom seldom came out from the rooms behind the shop – used their Chinese names. There was even a great-grandmother, who sat, shrunken and silent, by the great iron range where the chips swam in a bath of boiling fat.”
There is no attempt – not even a whisper of the possibility – to imagine how different the memories of the “older” generation of Wings might be, let alone the “still older” generation and the great-grandmother’s generation, from the younger Wings’, from the narrator’s memories.
Although barely ten pages long, “Wing’s Chips” raises some interesting questions about the intersections between identites together with the feeling that a child often has, of being caught between-the-lines, not fully inhabiting any well-defined and welcoming spaces.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the seventh story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “The Legacy”.