O Canada! The Joy of Reading

Well, there’s a title for you, eh? I spent some time in Canada in my youth. Specifically on the island of Newfoundland, back in the days when most roads there were unpaved. In fact, when Queen Elizabeth came to visit—yes, my daddy put me on his shoulders so I could “see” her when the motorcade went by—they paved one road, from Ernest Harmon AFB (US) into little Stephenville, so the queen would have a smooth ride. Really perked up the local economy there for a while. I had some wonderful experiences in Newfoundland, and have some beautiful photographs of that time. It was quite … foreign.

Foreign isn’t what most Americans think when Canada comes to mind, but I assure you, in certain places it is. A couple years ago I read John Gimlette’s Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador, and was astonished to learn how little the place has changed in the many (ahem) years since I was there, when it was truly a different world.

And then I stumbled on Louise Penny, who writes a delightful mystery series set in the fictional Three Pines, Canada, not far from Montréal. The protagonist in Penny’s cozy mysteries is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Sûreté du Québec. He is French Canadian (as is his wife, Reine-Marie); French is their first language, although they also speak English. Penny’s characterization is very deep. You want to read the next book in the series because you have become so fond of the cast of characters.

More than that, though, the books are distinctly Canadian. And in A Rule Against Murder, I learned a little piece of history I don’t think I knew.

Here’s the scene: the Gamaches are vacationing at a B&B where a wealthy “English Canadian” family, the Finneys, are also staying. They are playing bridge one evening after dinner; Madame Finney isn’t actually playing, just looking over shoulders. (The following was transcribed from pages 34–36 of a 2008 copy of A Rule of Murder from Minotaur Books, which is a St. Martin’s imprint.)

“I learned French late in life,” Mrs. Finney said. …

“You live in Quebec?” Reine-Marie spoke slowly and distinctly.

“I was born in Montreal but now live in Toronto. Closer to my friends. Most left Quebec years ago, but I stayed. Back then we didn’t need French. Just enough to speak to our maids.” Mrs. Finney’s French was good, but heavily accented.

“Mother.” Thomas reddened.

“I remember those days,” said Reine-Marie. “My mother cleaned houses.”

Mrs. Finney and Reine-Marie chatted about hard work and raising families, about the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, when the Québécois finally became “maîtres chez nous.” Masters in their own house.

“Though my mother still cleaned the houses of the English in Westmount,” said Reine-Marie, organizing her cards. “One no trump.”

Madame Finney beetled over to look, nodding approval. “I hope her employers were kinder to her. I’m ashamed to say I had to learn that too. It was almost as hard as the subjunctive.”

“It was a remarkable time,” said Gamache. “Thrilling for most French Canadians, but I know it came at a terrible price for the English.”

“We lost our children,” said Mrs Finney, moving around the table to peer into his hand. “They went away to find jobs in a language they could speak. You might have become masters, but we became foreigners, unwelcome in our own home. You’re right. It was terrible.” …

“Did any of your children stay here?” Reine-Marie asked Madame Finney. The Gamaches at least had Annie living in Montreal, but she missed Daniel [a son who lives in France] every day, and wondered how this woman, and so many others, had done it. No wonder they weren’t always comfortable with the Québécois. If they felt they lost their children for the sake of a language. And without thanks. In fact, often just the opposite. There remained a lingering suspicion among the Québécois that the English were simply biding their time, waiting to enslave them again …

North America was settled by a lot of English folk. But there were some French settlements, too, notably in the St. Lawrence River Valley. I’m not going to pretend to know anything about Canadian history, but it seems like the principle of Manifest [English!] Destiny was at work in that part of the continent too. So how did this Quiet Revolution happen? And how does it happen that I didn’t know about it? (Sure, I’m aware of the Quebec separatist movement now. But I lived through the period of this Quiet Revolution … which is why I didn’t know, I think.)

Looking up “Quiet Revolution” on Wikipedia is one thing—and I did go straight to the Internet when I read this—but this short passage in a book of fiction taught me a lot about an event that was earth-shaking for many, many people. Wikipedia doesn’t discuss the human cost, but here it is in the pages of a mass-market paperback novel.

And that’s what I love about fiction—that even in the most unexpected places, learning happens. It’s a human story, relayed through the mouths of human characters, in a way that a history book can’t. Fascinating.

Tweet: A human story, relayed through human characters, in a way a history book can’t.

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4 Comments

  1. Well Jamie, I lived thru the “Quiet Revolution” as a boy and into adulthood, observing from the western (English) province of Alberta. Quebec’s is a deeply sad plight, but hardly any non-fictional people embrace the kinds of Hard Lessons these character seem to have accepted. So two things come to mind upon reading your post.

    1) The French got “their precious”, but ended up with leanness in their souls. In the long-ago battles to see if the French or the English would rule Canada, they declared a tie. But in reality, the French lost. Tough to sustain a culture for 150 years by denying reality.

    2) Two cannot walk together unless they be agreed. Imagine if, say, Louisiana declared it’s state government to be a National Assembly and started opening Embassies in foreign countries and negotiating their own trade agreements. Quebec is like a rebellious 40 year-old teenager that: Simply. Will. Not. Grow. Up.

    • jamiechavez says:

      I was looking forward to a comment from you, Wayne. Good words. I think it just goes to show that you can’t change the past; you simply have to move forward.

  2. Great post! My husband and I plan to make it to Newfoundland one of these days (it’s up high on our to-travel-to list), and I look forward to reading “Theatre of Fish.” Judy Christie

    • jamiechavez says:

      I loved that book for a variety of reasons, not least because of the wonderful smell of the ink. :) I am very fond of travel books anyway (I must blog about that!) but in this case I ended up emailing the author and had a very interesting correspondence with him. Gerry and I are thinking of doing it, too, and Mr. Gimlette offered to put us in touch with people (!). He also advised that August would be the only appropriate month for sightseeing. My memories of that time involve 7 months of snow and 3 months of slush and mud. You can do the math, I think. :)

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