Perhaps Hélène is not a likely hero.
She is “only eight years old, a bit florid in colour, with bluish veins on a body that weighed twenty-three kilos, holding back a mind that was always trying to run off to faraway, pitiless realms”.
Oscar sounds like a more heroic name, but the skeleton in science class and a cartoon character already bear it.
So, instead, Hélène adopts the name Joe, and she works to convince everybody that she is a boy.
A boy with a body like “a cake that wouldn’t rise, a sauce that refused to thicken, a place of desolation”.
(Now, even if the first description didn’t snag you, this one did, right?)
“It was around this time that Roger came on the scene. He was a broken-down piece of flotsam.”
(Take a moment to stare at Genevieve Simms’ illustration on the cover: perfect, isn’t it?)
“I came across him when I was returning from my paper route one day, half sleepwalking as usual, not altogether sure if I’d delivered my papers or not. But this morning, as I got close to the house, the presence of this perfect stranger quickly brought me back to the land of the living.”
Our hero was eight years old when children still had newspaper routes (if you did, too, this novel would hold an additional layer of appeal, and you might sympathize with her need to pretend to be ten to get the job in the first place), but Mister Roger and Me is told with an eye over the shoulder.
Hélène is wiser than she once was. “Childhood is short-lived. Fortunately.”
But she did have to grow up faster than some children. Sure, she read classic comics (Germinal, most recently) and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and she has a rich fantasy life as girl-Oscar, but there was tension in her household, with some money problems, depression and alcoholism.
Early on, Hélène tries to protect her parents from their sadness, even adding coins from her paper route to her mother’s purse, to make it easier to buy those cans of creamed corn that make shepherd’s pie so much tastier.
Her mother is unaware, and Hélène only becomes more desperate to help. But it’s a sweet kind of desperation, winningly near-innocent.
“No matter how often she frantically closed and opened her change purse to see if the miracle had repeated itself, her hopes never managed to alter the reality. From my hiding place near the door, I watched and suffered. I really needed to come up with a cloak of invisibility.”
And to focus on these small sorrows is misleading, for this is a funny, charming story.
(In the same way that Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness is funny and charming; if you didn’t find it funny, you won’t likely be smiling at Marie-Renée Lavoie’s novel either.)
For instance, at first glance she sees her parents “darkened, narrowed” eyes as they sit on the couch watching the boob tube (an expression dating back to those paperroute years) in their threadbare housecoats.
But, then… ”from up close – and this is why I had to sneak up on them — when I really examined the pattern of their days, I could see that they were in fact holding the fort, that the incessant boredom that attacked them was beaten back, if only for a moment, by the tranquility of a happiness that had nothing to do with the mediocrity of their surroundings. Slowly, reality made itself appear beautiful.”
This is something of a trick, yes. But Hélène is conscious of asking the reader to give some ground. She is aware of her role as story-teller.
“But I also know that we tend to give ourselves a lot of importance when we’re the ones telling the stories.”
And telling stories is of vital importance. Not only stories about Oscar, but stories about Joe/Hélène.
For instance, some in the neighbourhood have suggested that the only reason that Blanche continued to subscribe to the newspaper was that her Alzheimer’s made it impossible for her to remember to cancel the subscription.
Hélène’s difficulty collecting the fee is recounted with humour and kindness, and she chooses to paint the situation differently.
“It made me think that, despite what they tried to make me believe, Blanche’s subscription to the newspaper was part of a finely orchestrated plan: perhaps I was her way, week after week, of staving off her disappearance.
That was a much better role.”
Befitting the tales of a young hero, whose attention is required in any number of places, and those of a traveller on a familiar route, much of Mister Roger and Me is episodic, an encounter with Blanche followed by an encounter with another neighbourhood figure, but Hélène’s determination is consistent and seductive.
Besides, “something always happens in the end, even when people do nothing. It’s an old law on which we hang an incalculable amount of hope.”
Marie-Renée Lavoie’s Mister Roger and Me offers a glimpse of that hope between two covers. Hélène is my favourite sort of hero.
Have you met girl-Oscar/Hélène?
Day 8 of 45: Still two more books on my Lives of Girls and Women theme (I can’t help it: it’s a favourite theme to begin with, and there are so many books which fit it perfectly with it in Anansi’s backlist), but I’m also reading some great short stories, trying to stick with my Mavis-Gallant-inspired rule to parse them out. At first, I wondered if 45 days would be too many for a project involving regular posts, as other than some once/week projects I’ve never chosen a theme that lasted more than a month, but now I’m wishing there were more days left in 2012.