Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Maria Chapdelaine

I finished Maria Chapdelaine weeks ago, the book is drastically overdue at the library (and it's an interlibrary loan, too), and I enjoyed it greatly. Why then have I not written about it, especially when I made a point of asking people to read along with me? Perhaps Maria would understand better than anyone about the restlessness that keeps me looking for new things and amusements the moment I sit down and try to write or read something that requires good concentrated thought.

Maria Chapdelaine, written in 1913 by Louis Hemon, is a lovely little story of the hardworking, heartbreaking existence of upcountry Quebeçois, trying to eke out a living on farms (the French renders farm simply as "terre", earth) scratched out of the all-encompassing woods. The woods are almost a character in their own right, looming around Maria and reminding her of the dangers and loneliness of this life her parents have chosen. The frame of the story is a year on the farm, as each season brings fresh challenges, fresh joys, and fresh sorrows.

When I first started reading, in my concentration on translating from the French, I mistook Maria's character. I thought that she was flighty and a bit shallow. Maria, the oldest daughter of a large settler family, yearns for a life of more security and more society than the farm can offer, and she has good reason: the Canadian woods are a isolated, dangerous place to make a living. Far from friends, far from help, Maria has no romantic notions about "the north", especially as the deadly winters bring repeated tragedy to her family. But she does understand what it means to endure. The loveliest example of this endurance is the chapter in which Maria, a serious intention in her heart, makes a Christmas Eve offering of a thousand Aves to the Virgin, working her prayers in through all the preparations for the coming feast.

Three different men seek Maria's hand, and they hold the promise of three different kinds of Canadian life: the life of the woods, the life of the farm, and the life of the emigré working in an American city. There is not one clear choice: each man is good, each loves her truly, and each life holds a different good. Maria's decision hinges on how best to honor the close-knit family she loves while not dismissing the very real negative aspects of the life they live.

The writing is simple but reaches lyricism in the descriptions of the countryside and Maria's interior life. For such a short book, it takes no shortcuts with its characters, balancing faults and virtues in each. A friend said she'd been surprised, after reading Maria Chapdelaine, that someone had compared it to Anne of Green Gables. Except that they're both Canadian literature of roughly the same period, there's not much similarity. A better comparison would be to the literature of the American prairies, perhaps the later books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or maybe Willa Cather. But really, Hemon, a transplanted Parisian who based Maria Chapdelaine on his experiences working as a farm hand in the region around Lac Saint-Jean, is his own author. Maria Chapdelaine can be read as iconic Canadian literature, or as a psychological study, or as a narrative of the pioneer experience, but really, it should just be read because it is worth reading in itself.


Jenny said...

As I was reading, I immediately thought of Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather, and lo, you mentioned Willa Cather.

It has a very similar ethos of a girl in the Canadian frontier having to decide how she is going to live the rest of her life.

Mary said...

I read it in English, a translation by a French-Canadian poet. Needless to say, there was none of the awkwardness that can be caused by translation. A lovely book. The best part is that the life and times being shown are accurate in the time and place in which the story is told; no revisionism here. Thanks for the recommendation!

Unknown said...

Read it with a box of tissues:-)