Canuck and Other Stories
By Camille Lessard Bissonette, Corinne Rocheleau Rouleau, and Alberte Gastonguay
Translated by Sylvie Charrron, Sue Huseman, Jeannine Bacon Roy, and Madeleine C. Paré Roy
Edited by Rhea Côté Robbins, 2006
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian
Rhea Côté Robbins is the distinguished director of the Franco-American Women’s Institute at the University of Maine (http://www.fawi.net). She has recently edited the translations of works of fiction and theater by three Québéçoise women in America: Camille Lessard Bissonette, Corinne Rocheleau Rouleau, and Alberte Gastonguay. All were born in the nineteenth century and lived well into the twentieth. Each work is addressed self-consciously to the Franco-American condition as experienced by women.
The title story is a partly autobiographical, partly romanticized account of the life of a young Québéçoise, Victoria “Vic” Labranche, in America and then again in Canada. Though this novel must count as buried treasure, one should not read it primarily for its literary merit. It is very readable but also choppy even for a novel serialized in local newspapers. It was intended as realistic fiction and is strongly realistic in the scenes derived from the author’s life in Lewiston, Maine, transferred to Lowell, Massachusetts. Vic is a liberated woman by her generation’s standards, taking over the family much like Scarlett O’Hara, working and living on her own and putting her brother through seminary with her wages. It is probable that Vic’s life was more typical of her readers’ existence than some of the idealized portrayals of women they read elsewhere; what is unusual about the story is the cheerfulness with which she is allowed to go about her life, a hard one but full of rewards and pride, in contrast to accounts that emphasized the moral degradation and sadness of the young immigrant woman forced to support her family. Vic has a gift for making friends and this allows the book to take on many episodes and anecdotes that have nothing to do with the ostensible storyline. When Vic and her family go back to Québec, their story becomes more folkloric, with debts to such works as Maria Chapdelaine and Pélagie; it also includes a story reminiscent of an old French ballade or conte, with debts to the particular folk style of the Louisiana French.
The central character of this interlude is Père l’Allumette, a figure straight out of a conte. He appears in archetypical fashion as an old man with a long white beard and mysterious talismans, chief among them an ebony box containing the preserved heart of a little bird. “In addition to his many prescriptions for aches and diseases, Père l’Allumette seemed to enjoy mystifying his friends by hypnotizing hens, pigeons, toads, rabbits, and ducks; but he would never consider hypnotizing a human being, claiming that it would be too dangerous to play with the terrible, unknown forces of nature.” He is something of a shaman as well:
A flash of heat lightning lit the horizon and allowed him to see the old manlying flat on his back in the grass. He ran towards him, called out to him, touched him and shook him but received no response and could see no movement. Overcome with fear, he was about to run to the house for help when he saw what appeared to be a firefly that stood out against the dark grass. A few seconds passed and the old man
sighed, rubbed his hand across his brow, and sat up.
When he opened his eyes, he seemed puzzled to find Alfred at his side. Still trembling, the lad explained to the old man what he had seen and the old man responded:
— I’m sorry to have unwittingly caused you such a fright. I understand now that the electricity in the air must have provoked a magnetic trance in me, and that, unknowingly, you witnessed an extraordinary phenomenon. However, if you should ever see me in this state again — which is unlikely — you mustn’t touch or call me, and, above all, you mustn’t tell anything about this. What your human gaze mistook for a firefly was actually my spirit, which has left my body for a few seconds, returning home because my final hour hasn’t yet come.
He provides several pages’ worth of Canadian folk remedies, often with liquor as the active ingredient:
For WEAK LUNGS: Place 6 eggs in the bottom of a bowl without putting them on top of one another. With a knitting needle, make a multitude of tiny holes in the shells without breaking the eggs. Cover the eggs with the juice from a dozen large lemons. Cover with a napkin. Store in a dry, cool, dark place. Leave for 48 hours. Crush the mixture to make a paste. Pass through a thick press. Add one cup of brandy, one cup of cod liver oil, one cup of (pure) honey. Beat well with light strokes. Bottle the mixture and wrap the bottles in dark blue paper. Take 3 or 4 tablespoons of this tonic daily. In addition, drink milk, eat eggs and other fortifying foods. Get plenty of rest and as much fresh air as possible, day and night.
For PLEURISY: Make a weak potion from patience/dock (sangdragon) root soaked in one cup of gin. Take a quarter teaspoon of this potion two or three times a day.
The list is awkwardly placed, but serves to establish Père l’Allumette as a figure not quite of this world. So does the song he sings, which Bissonette tells us helpfully is “a deeply touching ballad that golden throats had come to sing on our shores from ancient France long ago”:
I have no roof to shelter me,
I have no friends or family,
All that I own, I wear upon me,
MY OLD RAGS!
Père l’Allumette dies shortly after he is introduced to us, but he leaves a long letter describing his life in Louisiana. The son of wealthy plantation owners from France, he murdered his wife in a jealous rage. The resulting shock caused his mother to lose her memory, so he had her told that he was dead at sea, and returned to her as a servant after twenty years of wandering.
My entire being urged me to kneel at her feet, but, fearful of the effect that revealing my identity might have on her paralyzed memory, I lowered my eyes, dug my fingernails into my palms, and, in a muffled voice, asked for work. After a half hour’s conversation, she engaged my services to help care for the lovely winged beings in the aviaries. For ten years, I had the joy of seeing my mother every day, of walking in her footsteps, of kissing the wings of her favorite little birds. For ten years I lived in Heaven… and in Hell.
Père l’Allumette never reveals his identity to his mother, and his story detours into several pages of description of the flora and fauna of the Louisiana coast, for which the conte-like fable of disguised identity and servile penance becomes something of an excuse. It comes alive again with yet more magical elements: the mother recognizing her son on her deathbed, the son claiming nothing from her inheritance but her favorite little bird, and finally the burial of Père l’Allumette with the box containing the bird’s heart. If the story of Père l’Allumette has a cognate in folklore, it is well worth preserving; if not, it is impressive both as a pastiche of folk elements and an invention in its own right.
The story of Vic as it unfolds also takes part in some folk motifs. She is accompanied on her journey by an angelic brother who dies young, but who first (in another digression) is befriended by a young man named Cadet Roussel. We are told that Cadet Roussel has a great talent with animals and comforts Vic’s little brother with a gift of a white rat, which magically survives the wrath of Vic’s father. Cadet is named for a French nursery rhyme “and with a good heart that embraced all of life, he felt proud when he could serve as a champion for those less strong than he. His had [sic] a heart of gold, a TRUE Franco-American child’s heart,” and ultimately “a destiny that is not part of this story. In time, he became one of the most brilliant writers of North America.” It is hard to tell whether Bissonette had a real person in mind or used the figure of Cadet Roussel to indicate that Vic and her family would always magically be attended by the great and the good. The death of the little brother and his dying wish to be buried in Québec represent the turning point in the life of the Labranche family: when they return, the father’s hard heart is softened, the older brother succeeds in his goal of becoming a priest, a molybdenum mine is discovered on their property and Vic professes her love for her protector Raymond Fénelon, who will eventually have her.
In its day, Canuck attracted attention not for its fantastical elements but for the grittiness with which it portrayed the lives of Franco-Americans, especially women. Vic stood up to her patriarchal father in a fiery speech: “Yes, you still have rights over me,” she tells him, “But I dare you to claim those rights!” The unflattering depiction of the father and the independent character of Vic, who doesn’t succumb to first love to a cad but eventually gives herself to a man in friendship, are definitely protofeminist material. By contrast, Alberte Gastonguay’s Le Jeune Franco-Américaine reads far more conventionally and seems less dreamlike though it is nowhere near as realistic as parts of Canuck. It also tells the story of a young woman seeking her fortune, but Gastonguay’s Jeanne does so through tropes of romance, family, and tradition versus modernity — all present in Canuck, but unexplored in comparison to Bissonette’s interest in chance and coincidence. Though for us it is easier to assume that a smoothly structured novel is closer to the facts of the readers’ lives, this is not necessarily the case. Given the reputation that Canuck had for realism, it suggests that the intrusions of the recipes, the overdetermined plot twists and the splendid, but extraneous tale of Père l’Allumette were closer to the psychology of storytelling in Bissonette’s audience. So may have been the nonlinear nature of the narrative and the author’s assumption that one knows her characters well enough to be able to leave them alone for pages, even chapters at a time. There is no real dramatic tension, but there is a great deal of tension between one means of storytelling, in which facts are recounted flatly or at times with a little moral salt, and another, in which stories have a grand scale and a seemingly fated outcome. What is most interesting is that the tension has a settled quality, not requiring resolution or causing the characters anguish. Bissonette writes from a perspective, like Thomas Hardy’s, from which it still appeared that “this will go on” however much adjustment it might take to marry tradition to modernity. Gastonguay is less imaginative, content to chronicle the changes she saw taking place, and doing so with considerable charm.
The strongest traditionalist among the three women, Corinne Rocheleau Rouleau is also in many ways the strangest figure, and her haunting play, Françaises d’Amérique (Frenchwomen of North America), is a major find, emotionally the most memorable of the three offerings if the least connected to reality. It is a series of short scenes, almost like tableaux, in which historical Québéçoises address the audience and act out significant moments in their life stories. Rouleau was deaf, perhaps helping her play to achieve a remarkably clear visual impact. It is also very fortunate that the tableaux are all accompanied by wonderful illustrations from Albani Rocheleau, bringing to life not only the costumes and hairstyles of the women but the ways in which they were imagined by their cultural heirs. The tension between these static pictures and the life to which they come on stage is significant. Though there could not be more difference between the content of Rouleau’s scenes and those of Charlotte Delbo, twentieth-century French woman of the theatre and survivor of Birkenau and Ravensbrück, the style and structure of Rouleau’s play is remarkably similar to that of Delbo’s plays honoring her fellow résistantes; in each case it is significant that the women say “I,” presenting themselves to the audience in their own terms, and interact with each other rather than with men, though the audience may well have known them as figures of idealized womanhood — Communist and anti-Nazi in Delbo’s case, Catholic in Rouleau’s. This method is a compromise between the old, performative means by which national and personal history was passed down through the French and French-Canadian generations, and the need of a conquered people to create a permanent testament. The play was commissioned in 1915 by the Cercle Jeanne Mance of Worcester, Massachusetts. (Jeanne Mance herself was rather a liberated woman and an important figure in early Montréal, among other things founding a large Catholic hospital.)
The portrayals of Hurons and other Native peoples are at best deeply problematic and at worst unacceptable. Much is naturally made of the non-Christian faith of the Native peoples, but such is the invisibility of race in much white folklore-based fiction that however uncomfortably, these elements do cause the play to be of particular interest. The first monologue in the play belongs to a Huron woman and despite the locutions on which the reader today ought to gag — Redskins, Palefaces, and Manitou — it is surprisingly moving, deserving to be quoted at length:
And their words are even stranger still…they tell us that over the sea… where the sun rises…there are more white men. They number more than the stones by the river and their Great Spirit is greater even than our Great Manitou!
The heart of the Huron is very heavy indeed!!! Should she believe these tall tales as told by white men?
The voice of the white woman is as soft as a mother singing a lullaby
to her child… but the Huron hears other voices…
The Huron needs the sound of the night breeze through the leaves, the clear murmur of the brooks… the voices of the waterfalls… She needs the sounds and sights of thunder and lightning during the dark nights — the whistling wind… the hurricane unleashed over the lakes!!!!
The Huron needs wide open spaces!!!!!!
The Huron needs liberty!!!!!!
The translations of the works and the editing by Rhea Côté Robbins (author of her own folk-inflected memoir, Wednesday’s Child) are very fine. The bibliography at the end is invaluable. It is a comprehensive resource of material on French-Canadians in the United States. One could have wished for a separate list of material on the authors, since the main bibliography covers so much ground in the twentieth as well as preceding centuries, but this is a minor quibble. One hopes that Robbins’ Rheta Press will uncover more such works by Franco-Americans, and soon, throwing light on a culture that is very foreign to mainstream America and yet nearer by than almost any other, and continuing to save its mysterious folkways. Long may it flourish.