Monday, October 10, 2016

Blast from the Past: Maria Chapdelaine

On his facebook page, Professor Tony Esolen recommended this book, which I had read in high school: Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hemon and I reread it last week.

It reminds me a little of the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder: the hard work, family unity, nature all around, infusing life with its seasonal changes. Like the father in the Little House books, Maria's father keeps wanting to move on, away from civilization, further into the wilderness.

On the other hand, this is a completely different work of art: haunting, immediate, and beautiful.

Dundurn Books publishes it in a "Voyageur Classics: Books that Explore Canada" edition:

Maria Chapdelaine, the quintessential novel of the rugged life of early French-Canadian colonists, is based on the author’s experiences as a hired hand in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean area. A young woman living with her family on the Quebec frontier, Maria endures the hardships of isolation and climate. Maria must eventually choose between three suitors who represent very different ways of life: a trapper, a farmer, and a Parisian immigrant.

Powerful in its simplicity, this novel captures the essence of faith and tenacity, the key ingredients of survivance. Translated into many languages,
Maria Chapdelaine is enshrined as a classic of Canadian letters. A new introduction by Michael Gnarowski examines its relevance and provides insights into Louis Hemon’s life.

Louis Hemon was born in 1880 and raised in Paris, where he qualified for the French Colonial Service. Unwilling to accept a posting to Africa, Hemon embarked on a career as a sports writer and moved to London. He sailed for Quebec in 1911 settling initially in Montreal. He wrote Maria Chapdelaine during his time working at a farm in the Lac Saint-Jean region and died when he was struck by a train at Chapleau, Ontario in 1913.

"Powerful in its simplicity"; "the essence of faith and tenacity"--those words summarize the effect of the novel brilliantly. The Chapdelaine family is Catholic, of course, but their distance from the nearest church and the barriers of weather make their Sunday Mass attendance infrequent. Hemon describes the back-breaking work of clearing land, painting and harvesting with economy, and the women's work in the household the same.

The heroine is like the land, silent and beautiful. Her three suitors pledge themselves to doing everything they can to please her but she never tells them what will please her. They offer their lives to her and she barely answers them, deferring her choice until the end of the novel. One choice is made for her when her first suitor dies when trying to visit her for Christmas, getting lost along the way. The second choice offers the greatest temptation, but when she thinks about it, she never even considers him but only the opportunities for pleasure. The third choice is closer to home, but I won't tell you what choice she makes in the end.

When I read the book in high school, it was in the old Doubleday Image Books edition. You may go to this website and hear the novel read in French, chapter by chapter, or with a zipfile download. The story has also been filmed several times. Also, if you look at the Google map of Peribonka, where the story begins, you will see that the road leading into the little town on the banks of Lake St. John is named Route Louis Hemon and the area nearby is called the Maria-Chapdelaine Regional County Municipality.

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