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Mavis Gallant in Paris in 2006. (Neville Elder/The Globe and Mail)
Mavis Gallant in Paris in 2006. (Neville Elder/The Globe and Mail)

Writer Mavis Gallant dies at age 91 Add to ...

“I invented rhymes and stories when I could not get to sleep and in the morning when I was told it was too early to get up, and I uttered dialogue for a large colony of paper dolls,” she wrote in the preface to her Selected Stories.

Her parents sent her to board at a French convent when she was 4. “The only thing I remember,” Ms. Gallant said in an interview in The Guardian in 2004, “is my mother putting me on a chair and saying, ‘I’ll be back in 10 minutes.’ She just didn’t come back.”

She was not taught written English, “the language of her imagination,” until she was eight years old, but she was allowed to read the English books her parents sent in a trunk. When she was 10, her father died from kidney disease, although she was told that he had gone on a trip home to England. Her mother quickly remarried and moved to New York – leaving her daughter behind.

“I think from the minute this break happened, she was no longer interested in her former life, she wanted a completely new life,” Ms. Gallant said in a 1985 interview. “And I was not only part of this other life, but I was the image of my father, in temperament, in appearance, in manner, in voice – a kind of living reproach. I think for that reason she saw as little of me as possible.”

Her mother sent her to relatives in Ontario and then abandoned her to a series of boarding schools – as many as 17, by Ms. Gallant’s count. The lonely girl longed for her father to reappear and rescue her and feared that he wouldn’t be able to find her because of her many changes of address.

In one of the autobiographical Linnet Muir stories (collected in Home Truths) she wrote, “My life was deeply wretched and I took it for granted that he knew. Finally I began to suspect that death and silence can be one.”

By the time she was 18, she felt that she was “of an age to make decisions.” She went back to Montreal, the last place she had seen her father, thinking that if she “got geographically out of the way” of her mother, she would be able to “breathe.”

She had begun writing fiction and poetry at her various schools and packing her efforts away in a picnic basket. She salvaged the best of this work and took it with her to Montreal, along with her birth certificate and a $5 going-away present from a friend. She looked up her old nanny and lived with her in a cold-water flat until she found a job and a place of her own.

Because it was wartime and most of the men were overseas, she found work in such male bastions as an engineering firm and at the nascent National Film Board, which was very much under the control of founder John Grierson.

The male chauvinism grated. Before she left the film board, she requested a meeting with Mr. Grierson, even though she was nothing but “an earthworm.” She demanded to know why “girls,” as they were known in those days, were never given anything interesting to do.

“If you train them, they get married and leave,” he said.

She retorted, “Well, I am married and I haven’t left,” referring to John (Johnny) Gallant, a nightclub pianist of Acadian descent, whom she had married that year and who had been shipped overseas to fight.

“And if they don’t get married, in 10 years, the place is full of old cows,” Mr. Grierson responded.

She faced the same attitude at the Montreal Standard, the now defunct newspaper, where she was hired in 1944, when she was 21. A senior editor said in her presence, “If it weren’t for the goddamned war, we wouldn’t have hired any of these goddamned women.”

She refused to do what she sneeringly called “women’s work” and eventually became a respected and sometimes controversial feature writer. Being bilingual, she could gather information in French and report in English.

About this time, a friend to whom she had shown some of her stories passed them on to the poet F.R. Scott. He published two of them in the December, 1944, issue of Preview, a small literary magazine that he was editing.

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