Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Maria Chapdelaine - Louis Hemon

'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.


  1. Voyageur Classics seem to specialise in odd almost-classics like this, which I rather like them for. I laughed when reading about the man who dies in a snowstorm on his way to see Maria. Death by snowstorm is such a standard Canadian feature in this sort of historical romance. I was so lucky to grow up in a warm part of Canada (we thought it was awful this year when it was -10C a few times) so it wasn't until I grew up and experience -30C for weeks at a time and, one horrific time, -50C that I really understood what cold was like for the rest of Canada. Not recommended. But the country is definitely vast. I do hope you're able to visit one day (not in winter!) and experience it for yourself.

    If you're interested in the experiences of Scottish immigrants to Canada, that's what a solid 30% of CanLit focuses on so you have plenty of reading options ahead of you - as long as you don't mind reading about fish at the same time. Or coal mining. We have volume but not much variety.

    1. My knowledge of Canadian lit is almost exclusively restricted to a love of L M Montgomery and Robertson Davies so I really do need to expand it. Growing up in the Highlands and Islands forced emigration through clearances was/is still an issue where feelings run deep, reading about an established immigrant community made a change. The island equivalent of lost in the snow is lost at sea and features in so many local tales it's in danger of becoming a cliche - though the few times it's happened in my life time are a salutary reminder of what it actually means. I am definitely interested in the transition from exile to pioneer and don't mind fish so perhaps you could recommend a few titles?

  2. I'm so pleased you enjoyed Maria Chapdelaine and found much to think about in it, as I did - since it was I who sent it for the postal group! Didn't envision it being read in Shetland (was it?) but that's the delight of this sort of group. The book was given to me by my Canadian cousins, whom I suspect felt my knowledge of Canadian literature was sadly lacking, and I found it a deeply absorbing read of the sort that brings the past to life. Speaking of the experiences of Scottish immigrants to Canada, the book that made the greatest impression on me was probably Sisters in the Wilderness, the Lives of Susannah Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill (were sisters of Agnes Strickland, who wrote Lives of the Queens of England, talk about a contrast), and had truly rugged Canadian wilderness experiences. Actually I liked Moodie's journals more than "Sisters in the Wilderness" which was about the sisters, not first source material. Are you familiar with these? If not - next year's postal group read!

  3. I don't know sisters in the wilderness at all, sounds interesting though. It was read in Shetland which I think was quite appropriate. Hemon definitely romanticises the life but not so much that it's unrecognisable and I liked the sense that this was a community that was both Canadian and French new and old.