We’re pleased to unveil backofthebook.ca’s Inside Read, in which we’ll introduce you to new Canadian books with an excerpt that we think will whet your appetite for more. In this passage from Michel Tremblay’s new novel Crossing the Continent, translated by Sheila Fischman, 10-year old Rhéauna (based on Tremblay’s mother as a child) must leave the small village of Maria, Saskatchewan, where she has been living with her grandparents and two sisters, to travel to Montreal and join the mother who, five years earlier, was forced to give her up.
Published by kind permission of Talonbooks.
By Michel Tremblay
Her grandmother hugged her tight, unable to say a word; her grandfather swallowed his tears; only her sisters let themselves go and cried, copiously. With her big suitcase beside her, she herself hasn’t moved, her lips quivering slightly but not too much. Strangely enough, no goodbyes have been exchanged though both grandparents and granddaughter know that they’ll probably never see one another again. Don’t say things. Avoid them or arrange so that they don’t exist. A calculated chill instead of outpourings, though they are necessary.
She did not turn around when she climbed into the buggy so she hasn’t seen the dejection in the eyes of Josephine and Meo from whom one-third of what is left of their reason for living is being taken away this morning while they wait for the rest to be cut off. Will the other two leave on the same day or will they have to live twice more through this intolerable scene that should be taking place amid heartbreaking sorrow and cries but is actually happening in a terrifying silence? Will they be able to bear three departures, three times on the same train?
When Monsieur Sanschagrin’s whistle echoed in the early morning chill, Rheauna held out her ticket to the tall man with a moustache who had just asked her if she was Rheauna Rathier due to leave for Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Montreal. He spoke each name in a resonant voice as if they were all exotic destinations on the other side of the world. The door of the car closed with a gruesome bang, she ran to the first window, pressed her nose against the glass and then, as the train was starting to move, her sisters and her grandparents on the wooden platform waved desperately, she allowed herself to weep, to cry, to pound her fist. She wished that the other four wouldn’t see her collapse, that she could wait for the train to pull away from the station.
Before she gave in to her sorrow, but she couldn’t help it, she didn’t want to go away, to cross Canada or visit her two aunts and her second cousin, then lose her way in the big city, Montreal, with the mother she had stopped loving so long ago. She wanted to stop everything — the train that was picking up speed, the course of her life that was branching off in a direction she hadn’t chosen, the nightmare that was starting here, this morning, that perhaps would never end. She thought about jumping off the train, at the risk of breaking her neck, or pulling the alarm bell to stop it. Or throwing herself at the tall, moustached man, who was looking at her wide-eyed, to punch him and beg him to give her back her family. She thought about dying or, rather, that’s what death was: a definitive departure for an unknown destination. Alone. In a moving prison. With no hope of a change.
This time it’s the entire village of Maria that seems to be swalllowed up by the fields of wheat. And rye. And oats. And corn. The steeple of the church of Sainte- Maria-de-Saskatchewan floats for a moment above a square that’s greener than the rest, of wheat that’s not yet fully mature though it will soon be haying time, then it, too, will drown in the waves of grain and disappear for good. Never again will she see that either. She will talk about it all her life, she will describe the colours, the smells, the horror of bushhfires like the one last summer, the beauty of summer sunsets and the northern lights in winter over the vast plains, the tears that will come to her eyes whenever she imagines her grandmother bending over her wood stove where a pot of beef and vegetables is simmering, or her grandfather rocking on his veranda and smoking his smelly pipe, or Devil chewing diligently on a juicy red apple. That’s all over now. She takes out her handkerchief, wipes away her tears, settles into her leather seat and looks out, shattered, at the endless plain that is running at full speed on either side of the train.