A woman’s reminiscences of her World War II–era childhood in the wilds of French Canada, which was marked by hunger, brutal winters and simple pleasures.
Rose-Aimee dedicates this memoir to her “children and grandchildren, step-children and grandchildren,” stating that she recorded “the memories she has wanted to share with [them] for a long time.” The reader feels seated at the storyteller’s knee as she spins tales from her youth that begin in Degele, a miniscule village not many miles outside the scenic, French-speaking Notre-Dame-du-Lac. Though in the vicinity of the tourist destination, Degele was a cultural world away in its poverty, rusticity and remoteness. In 1942, the year her family moved into the cabin where most of the memoir is set, virtually all the village’s men had been sent to the war, and her father was one of very few remaining. His presence, while a comfort, was not enough to keep food in his wife and three daughters’ mouths during the harsh winter months. Forced to accept a dangerous and distant logging job, he left his frail and depressive wife to fend for the children during the first snows in hopes of providing for them. The author gives us the harrowing tale of dwindling food supplies and firewood that forced her malnourished mother out into the snow and wind to scavenge for food. Though terrified for her mother, the 5-year-old Rose-Aimee distracted her infant sisters from their aching bellies by spinning vivid tales of sweet delights like their favorite, sucre a la crème. Her descriptions of food and hunger are some of the most affecting in this slim volume, and this episode is the crown jewel of her anecdotes. The memoir’s middle loses the tension of the early chapters and digresses into something of an inventory of family history and memory that offers weak narrative pull for the common reader. The pacing quickens in the final third as we return to the immediate family and a deeper investigation of the parents’ troubled marriage. Though the writing contains well-wrought images and the colloquial orality of Rose-Aimee’s narration often charms, these also inhibit the story’s integrity as distinct from her telling. A more scrupulous attention to structure and pacing could have delivered this truly affecting and compelling tale with the dynamic momentum it calls for.
A remarkable and moving story, despite its meandering structure, of one family’s survival against myriad forces of nature.