Friday, March 27, 2020

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon

Picturesque Québécois classic
Maria Chapdelaine is a regional realist novel set in the Lake St. John country of rural Quebec. It is a well-known book among Canadians, particularly the French-speaking Canadians of Quebec, where it is often assigned reading in schools. Author Louis Hémon, a French-born immigrant to Quebec, based the novel on his own experiences of living in the area. He completed the novel in 1913, but tragically, soon after submitting the manuscript for publication he was hit by a train and died. Maria Chapdelaine, his literary legacy, remains as a quintessential Canadian classic and a rallying cry for Québécois pride.

The title character is a young woman, likely in her upper teen years, who lives with her parents and siblings in a house deep in the forests of the Laurentian Highlands, a few miles from the nearest village. She has reached a marriageable age, and a few suitors have begun seeking her hand. Considering the novel is named after her, Maria plays a surprisingly small part in the story and barely says a word. Though Maria’s courtships make this ostensibly a romance novel, all members of the Chapdelaine family are equally important characters in the story. One could rightfully consider the real plot of the novel to be simply the passing of the seasons and their corresponding events in the lives of the region’s inhabitants, such as the cycles of planting and harvesting, of freeze and thaw, of gathering berries or cutting lumber, and of religious observances and holiday traditions. Hémon does a brilliant job of capturing the lifestyle of the families of the Lake St. John area as they work diligently to carve a living from the land. In fact, before they can work the land, they must first “make land” through the arduous process of clearing trees, stumps, and rocks from forest land to create fields for crops.

Somewhat like a Canadian Little House on the Prairie, this book was written for an intended audience of young readers, but tastes in literature have changed over the past century, and these days it will likely appeal more to adult readers of historical fiction. Though the vocabulary (of the English translation) is manageable for younger readers, Hémon doesn’t dumb down the content in any way or minimize the tragedies. In fact, the novel often strikes a sorrowful tone, but one that is authentic to the hardships faced by the characters. I was expecting an easy ending with a surprise reveal that would make everyone rejoice, but I didn’t get, and I respect Hémon all the more for not pandering to his audience. The novel ends with a veritable anthem to Québécois heritage and traditions, followed by a surprisingly abrupt but admirably realistic resolution.

Maria Chapdelaine is one of those rare books that are just as famous for their illustrations as for their text. Quebec-born artist Clarence Gagnon created 54 paintings for the 1933 edition published in Paris. These beautiful artworks hold an esteemed place in the history of Canadian art, and deservedly so. They not only illustrate scenes from Hémon’s narrative but also include some of the best landscape paintings ever produced of the Quebec countryside. All of Gagnon’s illustrations can be viewed online at the website of the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art. Actual copies of the novel with Gagnon’s illustrations are hard to come by, but the paintings have been reprinted in art books. The unillustrated text of the novel itself, in either French or English, is in the public domain and can be downloaded for free from sites like Amazon and Project Gutenberg. Readers of all ages, particularly those interested in Canadian history, will find Maria Chapdelaine an enjoyable and moving read.
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Illustrations by Clarence Gagnon from Maria Chapdelaine, 1933 edition

The Chapdelaine Farm

September Arrives

Picking Blueberries

Christmas Mass

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