'Maria Chapdelaine' came my way as a postal book group read, as a classic of French Canadian literature it's perhaps not entirely surprising that I'd never come across it before but it seems it's required reading in Canada (presumably all of Canada and not just the French bits?) has been filmed at least 3 times and is well translated. My knowledge of Canadian literature is limited but positive so it was a bit of a bonus to get a chance to read this, it proved to be every bit as good as I could have hoped for.
On the whole it's a simple enough story, Maria and her family live somewhere on the frontier in Quebec carving a farm out of the wilderness of forest there. Maria's father is a born pioneer and this is the 5th farm he's win from the land - as soon as the work is completed he feels the urge to move yet further north and start again. It's a harsh way of life in a country that is 7 months severe winter, and living 8 miles from the nearest hamlet but it's also the life that he's compelled to live, and despite his wife's desire for life in a parish where she would have neighbours she's content too.
Maria hasn't questioned what she really wants from life at the beginning of the book, but 3 potential suitors and 2 deaths will change all that. First there is the man she falls in love with and who loves her in return. It's a chaste courtship - a couple of meetings - but enough for a deep understanding, when the man dies in a snowstorm on his way to see her Maria is quietly devastated. Of her remaining suitors one offers her a new life of relative ease in America, the other - a neighbour can only offer her more of the life she knows. For Maria who likes but doesn't love both men the choice initially seems simple; America, far away from the forest she's coming to hate for taking her man from her. The death of her mother makes Maria think again though, without love the prospect of a life away from family and culture she knows is to much, a secondary consideration is that her family suddenly needs her to hold the home together.
A couple of years ago I saw an exhibition in Shetland that traced the lives of some of those who had emigrated, this book describes the life that dome of them would have found. Despite 300 years in the country there is still a sense of being French as well as Canadian, and what Hemon presents us with is a hard life but a rewarding one for these people are making something fundamental. He doesn't disparage city life as such but there's a definite belief in the noble peasant. In the end though it's the description of Canada, and the people of Quebec that I think will stay with me. The harsh farming life undertaken on the edge of viable country isn't entirely unfamiliar to me, though the freezing winters are, but I've never experienced the vastness of a country like this and it's something I long to see.