When Place Evokes Story

When Place Evokes Story

Posted on July 26 by Alice Zorn
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on Pinterest

My novel is called Five Roses after the FARINE FIVE ROSES sign on the southwestern skyline of Montreal, but the sign isn’t where I got the idea to write something called Five Roses. 

My mother-in-law, who lived in a village near Quebec City, had a Five Roses cookbook that dated from the 1930s. The frontispiece was a colour plate of a 98-lb bag of flour. I didn’t know why at the time, but I made a photocopy to bring back with me to Toronto and put it in my folder of story ideas. 

Some years later, after I’d moved to Montreal, I wrote a short story about a girl whose bed sheet was made from an old flour bag. The cloth was so faded that she could only just make out the words Five Roses. The story partly took place in Pointe St-Charles, a neighbourhood in southwest Montreal. 

The Pointe had been settled by the people who worked in the factories built along the Lachine Canal — Canada Malting, Redpath Sugar, and Dominion Textile, to name a few. When the factories began to close during the Depression, and later for other reasons, the Pointe fell on hard times. This is a photo of the neighbourhood, taken in 1946, from Archives Canada. 

In 2001, when I moved to the Pointe, it was still an economically depressed neighbourhood. The photo on the cover of my book was taken then. 

It was also then, in the early 2000s, that people who were looking for inexpensive, inner-city real estate discovered the Pointe. They began buying and renovating the brick row houses. Abandoned factories along the canal were converted to luxury condos and office space. The cost of housing escalated. The upside of gentrification is that buildings on the verge of being condemned are rescued. The downside is that low-income residents lose their homes. 

I decided to write a novel set in the Pointe as I had first seen it — before it disappeared. What emerged for me were themes of abandonment and appropriation. I wanted characters who had experienced deep personal loss. How had it changed them? How do they overcome a loss they can’t possibly forget? The kidnapping of a baby. The suicide of a family member.

I wanted to include the story about the girl with the bed sheet made from a flour bag. She had grown up isolated in a cabin in the woods. There was a shed, atop an abandoned factory along the Lachine Canal, that reminded me of her cabin. Life in the woods made a contrast with the Pointe and its history as an industrial slum. And of course, in a novel called Five Roses, there had to be baking and pastry.

When I was working on the novel, a friend sent me this Five Roses cookbook she found in a flea market in Victoria, BC. It was published in 1962. There’s no bag of flour, but still does contain recipes for Prize Fruit Sauce and Maid of Honour Tarts. 

Alice Zorn

Posted by Dundurn Guest on September 2, 2015
Alice Zorn photo

Alice Zorn

Alice Zorn is the author of Arrhythmia and a book of short fiction, Ruins & Relics, which was a finalist for the 2009 Quebec Writers’ Federation First Book Prize. She has twice placed first in Prairie Fire’s Fiction Contest. She lives in Montreal.