Mr. Roger and Me

By Marie-Renée Lavoie

From the first sentence of Marie-Renée Lavoie’s debut novel, Mister Roger and Me, we are drawn into the lively world of the feisty eight-year-old Hélène, otherwise known as Joe. Growing up in the 80s with her parents and three sisters, Joe finds life somewhat humdrum, compared with that of her heroine, a TV cartoon character named Lady Oscar. Oscar, disguising herself as a man, is captain of the palace guards in the court of Marie Antoinette, leading a life of dangerous deeds and heroism. Hélène admires Oscar’s strength and bravery and, wanting to be more like her, searches for adventure, hardship and sacrifice in her own life.
In her first attempt at this, she takes on a paper route, pretending to be ten to get the job. Rising very early all alone, carrying the heavy load of papers and delivering them on time in the early morning hours, she has pride in the knowledge that she is doing something hard and having to sacrifice a few hours of sleep in order to do the job properly. This gives her great satisfaction (as well as cash) and helps prepare her for later exploits.
Although her surroundings seem commonplace to her, Joe’s neighbourhood has some very interesting characters wandering around in it, including several psychiatric patients, and a few neighbours who entertain the others on hot summer evenings with their loud carrying-on on the balcony. It’s as good as a movie! Into this mix, Mr. Roger arrives, adding his own brand of local colour with his salty language dispensed from his armchair on the front lawn, where he smokes cigarettes and drinks beer. Ready for the end of life as Joe is beginning hers, the two have some prickly encounters, each side trading insults with equal ability and enthusiasm. They settle into a relationship of tolerance on one side and protectiveness on the other, eventually forming a deep and solid bond, with which both are content.
This book was a delight to read. First encounters between Joe and Mr. Roger are hilarious, and the advice that Hélène’s mother bestows on those not as adept as she at handling their children had me laughing out loud. There are also some genuinely touching moments, particularly between Hélène and her sad father, and of course when Mr. Roger nears the end. But Lavoie depicts these scenes as adeptly as the humorous ones; we feel sympathy and compassion, but it is never overdone or sentimental.
But the main attraction of the book is Hélène/Joe herself. I loved her spunk and determination, her tenderness towards her two younger sisters, and her willingness to help, sometimes anonymously. As the book progresses we see a young girl growing up who never loses her early goals, or her spirit and sense of humour. She is just as appealing as a young woman named Hélène as she was as the girl called Joe.
Lavoie’s wonderful book was translated by Wayne Grady and he does it beautifully. While it never feels like a translation, there is enough French here and there to evoke a colourful and inviting French-Canadian community.
Thanks to House of Anansi for supplying me with the Advance Reading Copy.

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