Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater and Other Stories

It’s on the back of Canada’s five-dollar bill: the opening lines of Roch Carrier’s “The Hockey Sweater”.

1979; House of Anansi, 2012

That’s how central this story, only four pages long, is to Canadians.

A short story about hockey, a 10-year-old French-Canadian boy’s crowning disappointment, and the cultural tensions between anglophones and francophones: on our money.

If this is all new to you, you can watch the NFB film online (it’s about 10 minutes long) or The Canadian Museum of Civilization has a neat exhibit which includes some audio clips and photographs: these will fill in the gaps.

Or, you could read the story, either in Tundra Books’ illustrated version (artwork by Sheldon Cohen, a Jewish anglophone who was a terrible hockey player) or in this reprinted edition of Roch Carrier’s stories, part of House of Anansi’s A List appearing this autumn.

Or, wait, there’s more: ECW Press published This Sweater Is For You! by Sheldon Cohen this year, which considers the creative process in illustrating and animating “The Hockey Sweater”. (There is also a symphony.)

You get it now, right?

Small number of pages, but a very big deal.

And that line between fiction and reality is blurred once more. Ten-year-old Roch Carrier appears on the Wikipedia page wearing a hockey sweater, years before he authored the story as an adult, and on the backs of our five-dollar bills, children still love to play hockey, just as he did as a boy.

The story is the kind of thing you can imagine being told at a dinner table, or over drinks in the pub: what happens when a francophone boy who is desperately fond of Maurice Richard and the Montreal Canadiens is sent the wrong hockey sweater in an Eaton’s catalogue order, and is forced to wear the sweater of the anglophone favourite, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It’s a sketch which reminds readers that we often have things in common with others even when we believe them to be completely different; it’s a microcosmic peek at a looming human question.

The other stories in this collection have a similar feel. Though rooted in single personalities or moments, there is a meaning which stretches beyond the particular.

So an Irish nun teaches French Canadian children to read aloud, but with an Irish accent (too close for comfort to the King’s English for many parents in the village). But it’s also about home, community, identity.

A village entrepreneur fills the house with cases of toothpaste, but it’s not about dental hygiene, rather resilience and context. And a story of two fox-farmers is an exploration of honour and loss.

From the Duplessis government to the Eaton’s catalogue, Roch Carrier’s stories are classic Canlit.

The stories are translated by Sheila Fischman (whose translation also appears in the Tundra Books’ illustrated edition), and the A List is a reprint of the 1979 collection but contains an introduction by Dave Bidini. The contents are as follows:

“The Nun Who Returned to Ireland”
“The Shoemaker”
“Idiot Death”
“The Machine for Detecting Everything That’s American”
“The Day I Became an Apostate”
“The Month of the Dead”
“Son of a Smaller Hero”
“Pierrette’s Bumps”
“When the Taxes Split the Roof”
“The Hockey Sweater”
“Foxes Need Fresh Water”
“A Great Hunter”
“What Language Do Bears Speak?”
“Industry in Our Village”
“Perhaps the Trees Do Travel”
“The Good People and the Bad People”
“Do Medals Float on the Ocean?”
“Grandfather’s Fear”
“The Sorcerer”
“A Secret Lost in the Water”

Project Notes: 
Day 29 of 45: This project really started with the A List and this is the first of its titles that I’ve chatted about in detail. Thing is, I love a good backlist.  Both for the writers whose works I know (like Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lee, in this instance) and those whose works I do not yet know, but they become more appealing by virtue of the company they keep (e.g. Rawi Hage and Lisa Moore). You can see a battered copy of Margaret Atwood’s Survival in this pic, and underneath it, a smashing new A List edition. I won’t be able to squeeze them all in before the end of December, but there is lots of good reading ahead for sure.

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3 comments to Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater and Other Stories

  • Sandra

    I was never a real hockey fan but I was partial to the Montreal Canadiens and Maurice Richard and adored the bright red sweaters. And I was definitely attracted to the story of the hockey sweater in the Tundra Books Edition. I even used it to supplement the curriculum in a high school history course when dealing with Canadian culture. The story is definitely a classic and the choice of a Maple Leaf sweater for the cover of this edition is certainly a wise one. The other titles are intriguing and I am curious about many of them: what was grandfather afraid of? and do bears have a language? and how can/do trees travel? or how can a machine detect things that are American? I guess there is only one way to get the answers?

  • I have a copy of this animated short on VHS (that’s how long!) and have nearly worn it out. How glad I am to know I can watch it on-line (why didn’t I think of that?) because my VCR is going to break one of these days and I won’t be able to replace it. ;-)

    I LOVE this story – it is so quintessentially Canadian – or at least, Canadien!

    And – wow – shows how much I pay attention to cash money: I had never realized that that quote was on the five dollar bill. Thanks for all the great details you provided in this review!

  • Sandra – Yup, you’ll have to read them! But you’ll be pleased to find that they are short and will fit perfectly into that gap of time in the evening, between a solid declaration of reading more before you fall asleep and the almost-immediate nodding off that can occur after a busy day, despite one’s best intentions. They read very quickly; I think you’ll enjoy them!

    Debbie – I know, I know: it’s crazy how much is available online and how often we need to relearn that, when we are used to needing a more tangible copy of something we read/watch. (The NFB site is fantastic, BTW!) And the 5$-bill certainly has a fresh significance for me now, too!

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