When I was attending elementary school in an extremely small south-western Ontario town, my friend Sheila transferred to a slightly-larger-but-still-small town in south-western Ontario for the eighth grade.
Her sister was attending high school in that town and somehow this made it possible for Sheila to escape. Neither of us fit in that super small town but, instead of uniting over our twinned sense of dislocation, we grew further apart where another pair of girls might have grown closer together.
After she transferred, Sheila had to read Louis Hémon’s novel for school and I did not; the only other book I remember her reading was an Agatha Christie novel, and she said that Maria Chapdelaine was boring beyond words. It seemed to take the entire year for the class to finish reading it.
A few decades later, this past October, I was thinking of Sheila when I picked up a Macmillan paperback edition of the classic at a college booksale. Inside the cover is a dedication, in a woman’s hand: “To our dear French student Jennifer. With love, Dad and Mom.”
Through the skinny paperback volume, Jennifer has marked the passages which do not appear in translation in her schoolgirl’s abridged edition. She marks them in parentheses: these are not the passages she needs to read and understand.
The other passages she marks with arrows, with thick grey triangles for heads, directing her attention. Sometimes she crosses out W.H. Blake’s translation and replaces a passage with a tidily printed (but clumsily translated) passage.
Somehow I can tell, whether by the vehemently coloured-in arrowheads or by the lazy loops in the fancy parenthetical marks, that Jennifer did not enjoy this classic novel about settler life in Quebec anymore than my friend Sheila.
I imagine Jennifer unwrapping the book, perhaps for a summer birthday during months when she knew what the texts would be for the following year but did not yet need to read them and I imagine her wishing that it was a Garfield cartoon book instead. (I make Jennifer the same age as Sheila and I: for no good reason.)
And how ironic, for there they were, schoolgirls reading this story of a young Quebecois woman who did not want to marry, who then wanted to marry, who then did not want to marry, who then was faced with the decision to leave the country she had come to know because she had not married, which all heads in a faintly Austenish direction.
For a man in possession of cleared acreage and some robust livestock in Quebec must be looking for a nice French girl. But Maria is barely of more importance than the livestock.
The main character here is the “menace lurking just outside the door – the cold – the shrouding snows – the blank solitude”. And, if we are to adopt a high school English teacher’s diagrams of triangles and arrows, the conflict is clear: man Vs nature. With a price to be paid. With “few women…fit for this”.
How do we find our way through “the great pitiless forest, and to hold in the midst of it all an ordered way of life, the gentleness and the joyousness which are the fruits of many a century sheltered from such rudeness – was it not surely a hard thing and a worthy? And the recompense? After death, a little word of praise.”
It is a story of endurance. But, then, the “marvel of the reappearing earth in the springtime after the long months of winter”.
For Sheila, it was certainly a hard thing, rather than a worthy one. And the fleeing appearance of spring was a poor occasion for praise.
But for a middle-aged reader, it was a darkly comforting story, which fit beautifully with one of my favourite reads of 2018, Songs for the Cold of Heart by Eric Dupont (2012; Trans. Peter McCambridge, 2018).
I’m glad to have read, at last, Louis Hémon’s classic novel. And I’m glad that I didn’t meet Maria when I was a younger reader, because I probably wouldn’t have been able to see the similarities in our trappednesses either.
This read was inspired not only by my friend Sheila’s poor scholastic experience, and a random encounter at a college booksale, but also by my choosing Quebecois fiction as my theme for reading in this year’s Canadian Book Challenge, hosted by Melanie at The Indextrious Reader.