(a post by guest author Mary Burns)
A writer sometimes doesn’t read.
Or read as much as she usually does. Another research trip, this time to France, and I wanted to travel light, so I dug out my e-reader and downloaded Michael Crummey’s Galore, a book I mostly, but not entirely, loved and admired. He has a gift for language and setting, and the history of outport Newfoundland seeped into me without me ever feeling force-fed on it, my favourite style of historical fiction. Such great names too: Mary Tryphena Devine, Jabez Trim, King-me Sellers.
Since the second part of my research trip will take me to the lower St Lawrence, it was good to get a sense of what it was like to live way out there and how things changed. Galore is a compelling read that didn’t take me long to finish, meaning I was soon without a book, except for what I could find in French, and of course there is beaucoup. My general, somewhat amorphous, subject has to do with the links between northwestern France and Quebec, which impelled me to pick up Les filles de Roz-Kelenn, by Herve Jaouen, for a taste of life in Brittany; Les Acadiens du Canada à Belle-Ile-en-Mer, by Jean-Marie Fonteneau, to broaden the information I gathered from two Acadian women, Maryvonne LeGac, and Danielle Blancaneaux; Les Filles de La Rochelle, in La Rochelle, from the bookstore in one of the city’s landmark towers; and finally, a classic Simenon policier from a stall along the Seine.
So much for travelling light. But it is such fun to shop for books. In the dark green bins that can be shut at night, or when it rains, there seemed to be a hierarchy, from, at one end of the quai, paperbacks in no particular order, that the vendors knew little about; to somewhat rare books at the other end, that the seller protected with wrapping and his caution to browsers not to touch. That was Paris. In the course of browsing at the more casual market in Saint-Servan, near Saint-Malo, I had a lovely chat with a bookseller who plans to bring some of his 32,000 volume collection to the annual Salon du Livre in Rimouski this fall.
The problem is, I read more slowly in French than in English. I almost made it through Les Acadiens, on my way from Belle Ile Sur Mer to La Rochelle, but once I was in that bustling city, from where so many original Quebecers sailed, I put Les Acadiens aside and cracked Les Filles de La Rochelle. As I have said before in this blog, reading about the place I am visiting heightens the experience for me. However, the other problem was … too much to see, try, eat, listen to, and learn from by experiencing it rather than reading about it. I put down the book and headed for La Chaine tower, from which flies the familiar blue and white of the Quebec flag. Samuel Champlain originated from La Rochelle (born in nearby Brouage), and the quais around the port were as busy in his time as I found them to be in mid-May. Tour de La Chaine, le tour Saint Nicholas, and le tour de La Lanterne are the three towers emigrants glimpsed as they embarked for the new world, their last sight of France in most cases. The exhibit at La Chaine, devoted to those adventurous, sometimes desperate men, women and families who left, noted that French was not the first language of most of those young males who contracted for work in Quebec or les filles du roi who became the mothers of Canada, as Quebec author Anne Hébert called them. Instead, like today, when one hears Punjabi, English, Spanish and German as residents of the global village mingle on the La Rochelle quais, those early travellers to Canada spoke Breton, Gallo, Oc, Poitvin and other regional tongues. French was the language spoken by the ruling class, which accounted for only a small percentage of emigrants. Why leave if life is good? A friend recently speculated that the mix of languages the first settlers spoke in the Province is why Quebec French is distinct from that of modern France. Food for thought, and, inevitably, more reading.