Mister Roger and Me by Marie-Renée Lavoie

Mister Roger and Me
Marie-Renée Lavoie
House of Anansi Press

For children, cartoon characters not only offer entertainment, but also provide a vision, however skewed, of the outside world. And although many might refuse to admit it, cartoon heroes often serve as early role models. This is the case in the endearing story of Mister Roger and Me, the translation of Marie-Renée Lavoie’s award-winning debut novel.

Set in the early 1980s, the story follows the life of Hélène through those seemingly endless pre-teen years. The eight-year-old decides she wants to be called Joe because she assumes that life as a boy is better. It isn’t because she is the second eldest of four daughters, but because Hélène is enthralled with the cartoon heroine Lady Oscar, a military captain in Maria-Antoinette’s palace guard who conceals her female identity behind a heavy coat laden with medals and military insignia. For Hélène, Lady Oscar epitomizes courage, strength and adventure.

Although our young protagonist tries to emulate Lady Oscar, her neighbourhood offers little in the way of romantic windswept settings. Her working class neighbourhood is populated with psychiatric outpatients roaming the streets, welfare recipients and her obese neighbours, the Simards. However, to Hélène, her surroundings are merely humble, not grim, and inspired by Lady Oscar, she strikes out to find an adventure in her tiny world. But instead of fighting for justice during the French Revolution like her heroine, Hélène lies about her age and says that she’s 10 to get herself a paper route, and when that isn’t enough, she takes on a second. At the same time, a new boarder moves into the Simards’ basement, a man by the name of Mr. Roger.

The new neighbour whiles away his day drinking beer in a worn-out armchair, and much to the chagrin of Hélène’s mother, Mister Roger swears like a sailor. But beneath his rough exterior lurks a kind heart, and the ailing senior dispenses wise advice to Hélène, in addition to serving as the neighbourhood source for home remedies. The senior and father of three grown children is a godsend who watches over Hélène and saves her from a fate that would have left lasting scars even on Lady Oscar.
The Original French

Lavoie has beautifully captured those bright shiny pre-teen years before the sordid side of human nature makes its unfortunate appearance. The brilliant use of Lady Oscar as a narrative device successfully reels the reader back to those tender years when performing an honourable deed was worth every last joule of energy. Another wise choice was the use of the first person narrative, limiting the reader to the world as seen through the eyes of a young girl. However, while the author has made some great choices, there are a number of passages with long-winded, heavy sentences that warranted a second read, interrupting the flow of the story.

Originally published under the title La Petite et le vieux in French, Mister Roger and Me was a risky undertaking, as many will immediately shy away from a story about a relationship between an old man and a young girl. But the odd pairing of characters works in this book; Hélène and Mr. Roger complement each other. The outgoing innocent child needs Mr. Roger’s guidance, while Hélène’s optimism offers Mr. Roger some hope in the final years of his life. Both funny and touching, Mister Roger and Me will remind readers of a time not long ago when we were far more trusting of our neighbours.

This review was originally posted in the Fall 2012 edition of mRb.

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