When Old and New Worlds collide
Black Robe, a historical novel by Irish-Canadian author Brian Moore, was originally published in 1985. It is set in the 17th century in what is now Canada. Years ago I saw the excellent 1991 film adaptation, directed by Bruce Beresford, so when I stumbled upon a copy of the novel in a discount bookstore I immediately snatched it up. I am glad I did, because this is a fantastic book.
Father Paul Laforgue is a Jesuit missionary from France who has come to Quebec to help convert the godless natives whom the French refer to as Savages. The Jesuit brotherhood receives a report from a remote mission in the country of the Huron Indians. One of their Fathers has fallen ill, and a replacement is required. Laforgue volunteers for the job, and after permission is granted by Governor Champlain he sets off on his journey, accompanied by a young Frenchman named Daniel and guided by a band of Algonkin Indians. Not only does Laforgue find the conditions of wilderness travel harsh and exhausting, he is also unprepared for life among the Algonkins. He finds their personal habits filthy, their sexual licentiousness disturbing, and their superstitious beliefs abhorrent. The two cultures are literally worlds apart. The Jesuits consider the natives barbaric, while the Indians think the priests, or “Black Robes,” are evil sorcerers. Laforgue tries to convince the Algonkins that life on Earth is merely preparation for the paradise of afterlife. They, on the other hand, prefer earthly life to the dark world of night that awaits them after death. Laforgue wants to baptize them to save their souls, but they think the “watery sorcery” is an evil trick meant to kill them. Their fear and antagonism of Laforgue threatens his own life, and the hardships he faces on the journey cause the Jesuit to question his vocation and his faith.
Although the subject matter of the book is of a religious nature, this is by no means intended to be an inspirational novel for Christian readers. In fact, members of that demographic may take umbrage at some of what Moore has to say about the church. This is the story of one man undergoing a crisis of faith and a crisis of conscience. Man’s relationship with his god is examined from all angles, incorporating viewpoints both devout and skeptical. It neither promotes nor refutes dogma, but definitely provides food for thought.
Moore’s depiction of the Canadian aborigines is unromanticized and not entirely positive. They are self-interested opportunists who will steal and kill when it suits them. However, they are also complex, intelligent people who value a sense of humor. Even in the darkest of moments, they can be seen laughing, joking, and mocking the French. Their culture, manners, and mores are presented matter-of-factly, without judgment. Moore totally immerses the reader in the 17th century, but he wisely departs from period veracity in one crucial way. When the Indians curse, it is 20th-century profanity that springs forth from their mouths. This anachronism makes it easier for the modern reader to identify with them, despite the chronological distance and culture clash.
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