Why I Write the Franco-American Story
By Suzanne Desrochers
I began writing the Franco-American story simply out of a sheer fascination with tales about beginnings on this continent, coupled with wondering how my own ancestors got here. But what I ended up discovering was that the entire way we think about early colonial America needs to be rewritten.
Migration stories. Immigrant literature. French Canadians, including my own family, hardly thought of themselves as immigrants. And yet I recognized something in the stories by 20th century writers about struggling to belong. There was a common thread in much of what I read: a longing for a place (the one left behind) that could have or should have been better, less hostile, and a sort of disappointed resignation that there would be no going back, that this country chosen in haste, in desperation, or sometimes not chosen at all, was where the rest of life would be lived.
My desire to write about my French ancestors came about through a series of events that took place over several years. My aunt sending me a genealogy that blew open my early-twenties mind, tracing back my ancestors to France of the 1600s. Then followed by three years of living in Japan and feeling some of that sense of exile and a sharp awareness of my own cultural identity. I also brought with me to Japan, Susannah Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush, read it and wondered what the French women in my lineage had felt when they first arrived, in a much less Europeanized Canada, a century earlier than the English settlers. What would they have written if they’d had the chance?
Then it finally all came together while walking around Toronto one day and coming across a book lying on the street entitled: Women of Quebec that I can credit with introducing me to the Salpêtrière, an institution so astonishing and revealing of the western European desire to lock up the poor and the subject of much of Michel Foucault’s work. The Salpêtrière also happened to be the place where the so-called filles du roi came from, the 800 or so women mostly sent across the Atlantic against their will, that most French-Canadians have in their lineage.
In terms of what sort of book I would write, I was inspired by two texts in particular, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers and Douglas Glover’s Elle. Leonard Cohen attempts to “rescue” Kateri Tekakwitha, the Iroquois Catholic saint, from the way she was interpreted by the Jesuits. Inchoate was the word Douglas Glover used to describe the 16th century European attempts to establish themselves in Canada, a place inhabited by people, he clearly illustrated, they knew nothing about. Both writers show us the absurdity of such misguided origin stories. Or, as Glover’s Marguerite de Roberval puts it, when she is dropped off against her will for a Canadian winter back in 1542: “Surely Agamemnon must have known that this would come back to haunt him.” In both texts, there are women and indigenous people, legendary spectres on the page, and my intuition told me that telling their stories, despite the paucity of official sources, was the way forward.
And so, I interrupt my narrative overview with this particular and personal story. In 1646, at 43 years old, Catherine Loiseau Trottier, I think of her as the bird, left her village in Perche, in the northwest of France. Her 55-year old husband, Jules, had just signed a contract in La Rochelle to lease a farm at the Portneuf seigneurie, a ten-year old French settlement on the St. Lawrence River between Quebec City and Trois-Rivières. The contract was for seven years and included an indentured servant paid for by the Seigneur. It stated that Jules would farm during the summer and saw pine trees in the winter. He would keep half the income from these ventures.
Catherine already had five children, including four boys aged 18, 10, 6 and 2. Her only daughter, Sainte, born in 1633, was not with them when they left for Canada and must have died as a child. When they boarded the Cardinal, one of three sailboats headed together to Quebec, in July 1646, Catherine was pregnant with a sixth child. The transatlantic journey would take over 2 months, and their youngest son, Jean-Baptiste would be born on the ship.
What did she think of this move, with four children and pregnant again, we wonder. Did she have a choice, a say in the matter? Surely it wouldn’t have been her idea to move. What was her husband thinking? Was he an inconsiderate ogre? Was he looking out for their best interests? Was going to Canada an opportunity of a lifetime for them? And of course, what would she have thought when she finally landed, newborn baby in hand off the two-month ocean journey.
The ancestor that, a hundred years down the family tree later, would lead to me, left Quebec in the mass economic exodus of the 19th century. He set out first to work in a New England fabric mill and then ended up trying his fortune and eventually settling to work in the lumber industry in Penetanguishene, a small community two hours drive north of Toronto on the shores of Georgian Bay. Eventually my grandparents bought a farm in Lafontaine, a neighbouring Métis village, where they would raise their sixteen children. The stories, artefacts and architecture of the French 17th century French missionaries, the Hurons and the Iroquois, were woven in to the countryside alongside the stripmall and other small town North American cultural landmarks. It was at once complex and familiar, though it was only years later that I would read enough to understand the many interconnected layers of francophone migration that ultimately lead to me.
My father eventually took over my grandfather’s farm and I grew up in the same home that had once housed my numerous aunts and uncles. I attended the French Catholic school in the village and made friends with children descended from the Métis Drummond Island voyageurs. I learned to sing Ouendaké and went on an archaeological dig at a nearby Huron village for a class trip. There was apparently no conflict in also attending the Martyrs Shrine for Sunday mass in the summer, a Catholic pilgrimage site that honoured the Jesuits and their assimilation project. Through it all, I learned to speak French and made my Memère proud because she herself, and subsequently most of her children, had all but lost the language during the years (1912-1927) when French education was banned in Ontario.
The best gift the past has to offer is a way into the future that is better lit. Going forward, I have recently completed a manuscript for a second novel that looks more closely at how the French interacted with the Iroquois, the Haudenosaunee, in those early decades of settlement. The Iroquois have for centuries come down the French-Canadian mythological pipeline as villains, and like so much of early colonial history, this needs to be revised and understood in a new light.
So to wrap up this blog entry, I would say that I write the Franco-American, or French-Canadian, or Franco-Ontarian story because I want to know where I came from, who my people met along the way, the places they travelled to, where they ended up settling. I also hope that writing these stories gives a road map for the future so we can start to solve some of the modern problems that plague Canada and the United States but that have their origins in the early colonial years.
Suzanne Desrochers is the author of the bestselling novel “Bride of New France” about the Filles du roi of 17th century New France. Suzanne grew up in Lafontaine, a French-Canadian village on Georgian Bay in Ontario. She is also a teacher and currently lives in Toronto with her husband, three children and a cat.
Marble Steps to Maine
By Juliana L’Heureux
When being introduced as a Franco-American reporter, the host usually begins by saying something like this: “Juliana L’Heureux writes about Franco-Americans but she’s from Maryland.” In other words, I’m not a Franco-American. Which, of course, begs the question of how I can write about a culture that’s not my own?
Indeed, for the past 30 years I’ve had the privilege to write at least one, sometimes two, stories every week about Franco-Americans. These articles are published in newspapers, journals, blogs and anthologies. Writing about Franco-Americans is an interesting reporter’s beat, because the culture is as diverse as the East Baltimore neighborhood where I grew up.
When growing up, I learned the value of family stories. Writing about Franco-Americans helped me to bind these stories with the cultures of my roots. Except, I’ve also learned how Franco-American stories are set apart from others. In fact, Franco-Americans haven’t really melted into America’s “melting pot”. Instead, hard working French-Canadian immigrants were often more like itinerant laborers than immigrants. Yet, in other ways, I didn’t see much difference between the cultural Franco-American stories and those I heard from a myriad of immigrant families, who were my neighbors in East Baltimore.
Maryland’s founder was Lord Baltimore He requested the colony from the British Crown to serve as a haven for England’s Roman Catholics, who were looking for religious freedom. Eventually, Baltimore City became a haven of hope for second and third generation European immigrant families. They settled in the growing city’s eastern neighborhoods, a place where white marble steps were the pride of the all the doorways.
There were no shortages of trees in Baltimore, when I grew up there. In the 1940s and 50’s, carefully planted trees were spaced with precision between row homes. They never seemed to grow much, but they were there to provide a splash of nature in an otherwise austere concrete landscape. In our tightly knit neighborhoods, Baltimore’s famous white marble steps extended into the horizon, like an urban Apian Way, leading to places where the streetcars went.
But, Patterson Park was beautifully different. It was a recreational common, connecting the parallel lines of row houses, the architectural lineages that were lined up like soldiers at attention, in the East Baltimore neighborhoods. Patterson Park was a central refuge for our ethnically diverse neighbors.
As a matter of fact, a focal point of the park to this day is an unexpectedly lovely Pagoda, just like the kind a tourist would expect to see in Japan. This oasis brought out the best in the multi cultural neighbors, who often didn’t even speak the same language
When I grew up in east Baltimore, our neighbors included Germans, Polish people, Italians, Sicilians (not to be confused with Italians), Russian, Ukranians and ethnic names I could hardly pronounce. Yet, almost everybody managed to got along! Perhaps Patterson Park was our green town hall. It was where children rolled down grassy hills and squirrels scrambled from tree to tree. As a matter of fact, Patterson Park, with its majestic pagoda, is still among Baltimore City’s hidden treasures. It’s literally located just across the concrete street from perfectly parallel rows of white marbled steps. Each set of sparkling white steps leads to the entry into a proud row home, usually a three story masonry house, decorated with painted window screens, depicting nature at its best, like waterfalls or stately swans swimming in clear ponds. .
Built in 1890, the Pagoda has endured through decades of use and abuse. Thanks to community support, it’s been fully restored to its original beauty. Although a structural curiosity, for those of us who grew up in its shadow, the pagoda was symbolic of vision. Although we were never allowed to climb to the top, we could imagine what it was like if we were looking at the world from up there.
Living on the second floor of one of those East Baltimore row homes, my mother often let me sit at the kitchen table to play with a very old fashioned toy typewriter. It wasn’t a real typewriter, but it did type. A small central wheel pointed to a letter. Every letter was typed with great effort, as the typewriter ribbon was pressed by the
corresponding key. “D-e-a-r N-o-n-a”, my mother would say, as she then patiently waited form me to turn the little wheel to each letter she named. In fact, every week, I
carefully typed a letter to mail to my Italian Nona in Monesson, Pennsylvania. She loved my letters. They almost always started with “I am fine. How are you?”
These formative childhood memories became my developmental stepping stones. Like the marble steps that led into my house and to those of all of my neighbors, these childhood memories also led to a realization about how writing could expand my horizons. Wow! I could communicate with Nona in Pennsylvania! Likewise, I could write to anybody, anywhere and at any time.
As a tribute to my mother, it should be evident to realize how the vision I anticipated while rolling beneath the grassy shadows on the Patterson Park Pagoda, was somehow infused into my little toy typewriter.
Writing about Franco-Americans is as gleeful an experience to me as typing a letter to Nona. Hopefully, my reports have contributed some sense of normalcy to Franco-Americans, who have only recently enjoyed the opportunity to take pride in their culture. While many history books hardly give French-Canadian immigrants any mention at all, the fact is, millions of patriotic Americans are Franco-Americans. Each person with Franco-American ancestry has a special story to tell to future generations. While reporting about thousands of these stories, I’ve valued the diversity, resourcefulness and creativity of Franco-Americans. Colorful language variations are probably the most evident example of Franco-American diversity. In my opinion, a colorful French-language one act play might bring an awakening to the cultural diversity, if the actors included portrayals of Acadians, with French-Canadians and the Métis in an animated conversation! (Playwright Greg Chabot alert!)
More often than not, the Franco-American family stories are ingrained in the threads of American history. Incredibly, most Americans are even unaware of how the French saved George Washington’s American Revolution from disaster, before the victory at the Battle of Yorktown, VA.
Obviously, the vision I yearned to see from the top of the Pagoda helped to open my mind to the possibilities of life outside of East Baltimore. Among the experiences
I’ve enjoyed since leaving my home city has been a rewarding career as a professional registered nurse and a published writer.
My husband likes to say I’ve been a Franco-American for 50 years longer than I was the daughter in an Italian-Ukranian immigrant family, who lived in East Baltimore and then moved, even further east, to Dundalk, in Maryland.
Franco-Americans have allowed me to tell personal immigrant stories. Like a cultural translating machine, the stories I’ve written are nearly the same ones I heard when growing up, but reported from a distinctly Franco-American point of view.
Those white marble steps that stretched out to the Baltimore horizon became the stepping stones to the American dream for many who shared my upbringing. Franco-Americans didn’t always have the opportunity to step away from their tightly knit French neighborhoods.
Metaphorically speaking, the white marble steps eventually led me and my family to Maine, where I’ve been honored to write about my husband’s Franco-American heritage. Although Franco-American history has been under-reported and, as a result, undervalued, my decades of covering the many aspects of the group’s identity has, hopefully, helped to instill pride in the culture, that predates the founding of America.
Of course, I’m not a Franco-American, but a reporter who has observed the culture from the big picture level, and it has been my honor to report what I’ve seen.
Juliana L’Heureux is a free-lance reporter, registered nurse, writer and blogger who has published articles, interviews, blogs and news events about and with Franco-Americans for over 30 years. She is the Chair of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College, in Lewiston. “Merci” to all who have supported the Franco-American history, French language, and culture in Maine and in Francophone universe. Her weekly blog about Franco-Americans is currently published by the Bangor Daily News. This article appeared in Goose River Press Anthology 2019, you can order it here. Contact Juliana@mainewriter.com
My Awakening 2
A Great Novel
One of my favorite books is THE AWAKENING by Kate Chopin. The novel, first pub- lished in 1899, had a profound effect on me, but at the time I read it when I was com- ing of age I didn’t know why. Chopin left me with an unsettling feeling that took me many years even to pretend to understand.
THE AWAKENING is generally thought of as an early feminist novel, but I when I read the book I had only a bare understanding of feminism. In my reading, the “awak- ening” was a realization of being imprisoned in the wrong place, with the wrong peo- ple, in the wrong time period. At the time period I read the book in the 1960s, I was fixated on the setting, Grand Island, at the very bottom of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mex- ico. Without any logical reasons, I had the idea that there was something on Grand Isle for me.
I felt I had to go there and experience the place as Chopin had written about it, but of course I could not, because the Grand Isle of Chopin no longer existed. Its man
made structures and landmarks had been destroyed by the passing of time, in particu- lar by hurricanes.
THE AWAKENING stayed with me. It was as if the feeling of the imprisonment ex- perienced by Chopin’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, had somehow been transferred to me. Edna’s awakening led her to believe that she could escape only in death. I be- lieved that some kind of awakening was in my future. Would my awakening be so fu- tile as Edna Pontellier’s? I did not know. The book left me with a feeling that I can’t quite find a word for; let’s call it a brush in a foggy place with the uncanny. Something was missing from my self-knowledge. What was it? Did it matter? Maybe not knowing was better than knowing. Maybe the fortification of a constructed false identity better protects us from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than reality: that was my thinking in those days.
Flash ahead a few years to February of 1967 when I was on a train headed for New Or- leans. My destination was Venezuela to visit my good friend William M. Sullivan, a peace corps worker in Caracas. Inspired by the writings of Jack Kerouac and con- ceived in an evening of drinking with my college roommates, I cooked up a plan to get a job working on a freighter going to South America. I knew all along that it was a mad idea, but for reasons not relevant to this missive I felt a need to get away from my world at Keene State College.
My arrival in New Orleans was marked by an outsized full moon over Lake Pontchartrain. It felt like a celestial welcome mat. I waited till dawn at the train station and then walked the city, which I immediately fell in love with.
I had no idea it was the week before Mardi Gras, and I was pleasantly surprised when I happened upon a parade on St. Charles Avenue where masked and costumed people on floats threw beads to revelers on the sidewalks. The scene so familiar to so many was all new and magical for this naive young man from the North. The weather was like May in New Hampshire, and the people appeared full of joy in guises of exhi- bitionism, a sight I had never experienced in my dour native region. I got into the spir- it. Today, though I’m a small town guy at heart, New Orleans remains the only big city I would live in and Medora and I visit it frequently.
I walked down to the docks, ostensibly in search of a freighter to hop, but the act was pro forma; I knew I was unprepared to travel to Venezuela. For one thing I didn’t have a passport and had no idea how to get one.
I rented a room in the Uptown district of New Orleans for $9 a week. When I left the room, I’d place a sheet of typing paper on the floor. Upon my return, most cock- roaches would flee into the cracks between the floor and walls, but some scooted un- der the paper. I would stomp on the paper to enjoy the crunching sounds. The secular side of me thought of this as an existential act; but, in the remnants of my upbringing as a Franco-American Catholic boy, I thought of myself as one editing God’s creatures. I hung around for a couple weeks eating one meal a day in a diner–chicken drumstick with mashed potatoes, gravy, peas, sliced white bread with margarine, only water to drink, total cost $1. I ate everything on the plate, including the bones. For transportation, I walked and took the streetcar. For entertainment I gazed at the camel- back houses, the gardens, and the sometimes outlandish people; I read books in the public library on Tulane Avenue; I stood outside Preservation Hall on Bourbon Street and listened to jazz; I lounged on the levee in Audubon Park and watched ships chug- ging down the Mississippi perhaps on the way to Venezuela; I saw one movie, the
Chelsea Girls by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey at the Prytania Theatre. That movie had a profound influence on my later literary career, but that is another story.
I ached with loneliness, but at the same I felt free in a way I never had in my home- town, in the army, in college. In all those places I knew people and they knew me. I felt a responsibility to behave in a certain way. Here in New Orleans I didn’t owe anybody anything. I could do whatever I wanted. What surprised me was I did not act on any of my wild fantasies. I was the same person in New Orleans as I had been in New Hamp- shire. My wild side was confined to virtual worlds created in my mind: it was an ap- pealing lesson for a future fiction writer.
Eventually, I answered an ad in The Times Picayune for an attendant at DePaul Hospital. I didn’t realize it was a psychiatric hospital until half way through the job in- terview by the head nurse, Beth Green, who was interesting to me in an odd way be- cause I had never before had a conversation with a woman of color. She looked me over. She liked my size. She said, “You’re not so big you’re going to scare anybody, but you’re big enough.”
But it was my last name and how she spoke it and spoke of it that chimed in my brain like a music I’d never heard before. She said, “Hebert, that’s a fine South Lou- isiana name.” Nobody I knew growing up in Keene, New Hampshire, said that Hebert was a fine New England name. Indeed, strangers were more likely to refer to me as Herbert or Hubert. Nor did she pronounce the name the way I had heard it all my life– hee-bert, or in the local New Hampshire lingo, hee-bit. She pronounced it, ay-bear, very close to the way it was spoken in my family. She hired me, based, I believe, solely on my size and my name.
I stayed seven months in New Orleans, and all the time I was there I never heard a slur against anything French. Quite the opposite–my name had prestige. The local cul-
ture left me with the impression that if you had a little French in you, like the one male black friend I made, Alphonse Pierre, you possessed some cool.
I had many adventures in New Orleans, before moving back to New Hampshire, ostensibly to finish up my degree work at Keene State College but also because I was homesick. What has stuck with me over the years was that my first awakening of my Franco-American roots was not on my home grounds of New Hampshire, it was in the common utterance of my name more than two thousand miles away in New Orleans.
I learned that Hebert was a well known Cajun name. I already knew the Evangeline Poem, but I had never connected it to me and my people; it was not until I was in New Orleans that I suspected that I had Acadian roots. It wasn’t until many years later, when Connie Hébert Hamel, a distant cousin, gave me genealogy information that my Aca- dian family history was confirmed. In 1755, during Le Grand Dérangement, some Heberts made their way to Quebec in the Troi Riviere region where both sides of my family hail from.
Regina Hebert, my father’s mother (who I never knew because she died in childbirth long before I was born), was also a Hebert from another branch of that rather large clan that spread across the continent from two brothers who landed in old Acadia in 1632. Yet another Hebert, apparently unrelated to the brothers, was the first perma- nent Canadian resident, Louis Hébert who arrived in the new world in 1606.
My dad, though he was facile with the French language, seemed to have neither knowledge of nor interest in his family tree. The subject never came up in our conver- sations. Though he had stories of his boyhood in Keene and talked about his affection
for his maternal grandfather Alcide Hebert who had come down from Canada, my fa- ther knew very little about Quebec and environs.
And my mother? After graduating from high school in Manchester, New Hamp- shire, she joined her older sister as a nun in the order of Saint Joan of Arc in a convent in Quebec. Though her faith remained strong, she couldn’t bring herself to take those final vows at the end of the fifth year, because she decided she wanted a family. She returned to the states and trained as a nurse at Notre Dame Hospital in Manchester.
My parents met at an estate in Dublin, New Hampshire. At age 30, my mother was what we would call today a nanny, but I don’t think she would have liked that word. She was proud to be an RN (registered nurse). Her job was to care for three girls who were members of a branch of the famous New England Cabot family. I’m guessing that my mother’s older brother, a Catholic priest I’m named after, got her the job. At the time, my uncle was pastor of St. Denis Church in nearby Harrisville.
My mother had a friend who was an upstairs maid. One day her friend’s boyfriend from Keene showed up on his motorcycle with another man, who rode an Indian brand motorcycle. He was 26 and he earned his living as a weaver in a textile mill in Keene. My future parents met at this chance encounter that resulted in a double-date.
Jeannette Vaccarest of Manchester and Elphege Hebert of Keene hit it off right away, discovering they had at least two things in common. Neither drank alcohol, and they both had roots in French Canada.
French was the language of their romance, and therefore their preferred language for conversation. They married in July of 1940 and moved to Keene. I was born ten months later. French was the language we spoke at home. At age 5, I started Kinder- garten. I don’t remember any problems, but my mother told me that it was a bad time for me. I spoke very little English and I was alienated from my schoolmates. I came home one day from school and told my parents that I was never going to speak that
awful French language again. My parents made a fateful decision. They decided to speak only English in the presence of myself and my little brother, Omer.
I soon fit right into Keene kid culture. Instead of being alienated from my English speaking classmates, I became alienated from anything that I felt reeked of French, in particular my grandmother, Elise Marcotte Vaccarest, who never spoke nor under- stood English. I was around eleven or twelve when she died. I did not grieve; my se- cret thought was good riddance.
My mother and her four siblings adored their mother and, as I learned later after I had matured, for good reason. My grandfather Jean Baptiste Vaccarest, a cobbler, had a bad stroke that crippled him until he died some years later. My grandmother Elise supported her five children by working long hours in a shoe shop in Manchester.
I never again spoke French, and except for a few words and phrases I can neither understand nor speak the language today, even though I’ve tried repeatedly to re- claim it. My first failure was a French class at Keene High School, where the instructor made it clear he was teaching “Parisian” and not–that is, definitely not–“Canadian” French. I translated the French teacher’s attitude along with the general attitude of my friends, neighbors, and casual acquaintances as evidence that I came from an inferior culture, best ignored.
The only French I heard at home was my mother’s reflex response to pain, not ouch, but ah-guhg. During family excursions to Manchester and Lawrence, Mass., the only language spoken was French. I bitterly resented being left out, but refused to make the effort to relearn French. Within a couple years I had somehow wiped most of the French language from my mind. My brother Omer rebelled against his name. He refused to be called Omer and insisted on being called Tony, a corruption of his mid- dle name, Antoine. My attitude toward my heritage wasn’t so much denial as studied indifference.
By the time brother Paul was born, Tony and I had become completely American- ized, New England version. For Paul, the issue of ethnic identity was more or less irrel- evant. By the time he came of age, all the old French speakers of our family had died off and the local prejudice against Frenchies had faded away. There was no one left alive who cared enough to remind Paul of his roots.
I’d like to note that neither the history of Canada, nor Franco-American culture was ever taught in schools I attended and never appeared in movies and on TV shows I watched. Many movies–for better and sometimes worse–put on displays of Irish, Ital- ian, British, Hispanic, Native American, and Afro-centric events and cultures, but never French-Canadian culture. It wasn’t until after my second awakening when I was easing into old age that I saw my first movie that dealt in any depth with French Canada. The movie was “Rocket Richard” starring Roy Dupuis in 2005. Summary from Wikipedia:
“Working-class Quebecois hockey player Maurice Richard (Roy Dupuis) becomes a hero to French Canadians as he stars for the famous Montreal Canadiens in the 1940s and ’50s.”
I was already a fan of Roy Dupuis when I saw “Rocket Richard,” because Dupuis played the lead male role in my favorite television series, La Femme Nikita (played by Australian actress Peta Wilson). Dupuis is a great actor with a compelling screen pres- ence. Also, Dupuis bore a strong physical resemblance to my dad. I bet very few Americans–even Franco-Americans–have seen this movie, and yet for Franco-Ameri- cans it’s as good a theatrical representation of our roots as you’ll find anywhere.
In some ways, I think my boyhood response to my ethnic identity in French Cana- da and, indeed, to France itself, was a typical American response. We’re a culture of moving West and starting over both in a real and in a metaphorical sense. In America, success is never in the hometown, but somewhere else. So many American film and
book heroes are orphans real or metaphorical, people cut off from their past. We like it that way.
For many Americans, one’s ethnic, racial and cultural identity forged by the past is like a bomb dropped from a plane that buries itself in the ground but does not deto- nate. Most of the time it lies interred for all eternity, but once in a while it explodes and once in another while it is discovered, analyzed, and defused. My bomb metaphor is not a perfect comparison, but it’ll do. For many people in my generation and in the generation that followed (I’m thinking of my daughters) French-Canadian culture is deep in the earth, unknown by its progeny.
A number of factors combined to lead me toward a second awakening, but the most important was a person–a writer, teacher, and self-proclaimed “missionary” of Franco- American causes, history, and identity, Robert B. Perreault a.k.a. Row-bear. But I’m get- ting ahead of myself.
There’s an irony regarding my second awakening, since it began with my own lit- erary acts of mostly unconscious ethnic-censorship. I published my first novel, THE DOGS OF MARCH, in 1979 and the grand reception of the work by book reviewers made me slightly well known. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was having my fifteen minutes of fame. The result was that I was invited by various organizations to give talks, appear on panels, read my work, and so forth. One of those venues was the first “Rassemblement des Artistes Franco-Americains” in August 1982 in Maine. I agreed to attend partly out of urging by Robert Perreault but mainly to plug my second book, A Little More Than Kin.
The Rassemblement turned out to be a transforming experience. I met and com- miserated with fellow writers whose personal back stories were a lot like my own. However, I couldn’t get over the feeling that I was a fraud. I didn’t think I’d earned the right to call myself a Franco-American writer, for several reasons.
I no longer spoke French. In fact, I had made an effort to purge as much as possi- ble my French-Canadian heritage. More to the point of my presence at the Rassem- blement, my fiction did not directly take on any Franco-American themes. In fact, somewhat unconsciously I even left out Franco-American names from the two books I’d then published.
I say “somewhat”, because it did cross my mind to spell Jordan J-o-u-r-d-a-n, but I rejected the idea though I can’t remember why. The Jordans represent the underclass characters in my fictional town of Darby, New Hampshire. Ollie Jordan is the protago- nist of A Little More Than Kin, Estelle Jordan is the protagonist of The Passion of Es- telle Jordan, and the Jordans appear as important characters in all the Darby books. I wish I could say that the Jordan clan, total outsiders in Darby, act as avatars of that “alien race” that David Vermette so eloquently defined in his profound study of Fran- co-Americans “A Distinct and Alien Race,” but at the time I was writing I had no such thoughts. It’s only in retrospect that I see the connections to the Jo(u)rdan clan and my own “outsider” sensibility.
Having gone out of my way to avoid using French names in my fictional town of Darby might have been forgivable if one would not expect to find French names in a New Hampshire town. But in the real world, all New Hampshire towns are full of peo- ple with French names. Not only was I untrue to my heritage I was untrue to the true- to-life effect I was trying to achieve with my novels.
If the “Rassemblement” in 1982 and the other two I later attended made a deep impression, it was to show my unconscious denial of my heritage. I was confused. I
needed a therapist or a guru or a mentor, some figure to come forward and smarten me up, because I couldn’t do it alone.
Enter Row-bear, which is how I usually address Robert Perreault in my emails, while he calls me Ay-bear. We enjoyed each other’s company right away, and over the next decade or so after the first Rassemblement, Rowbear, sometimes through argu- mentation, more often through teaching moments, raised my consciousness, and brought me to a deeper understanding of who I was and why I was the way I was.
Row-bear was the author of L’Héritage, the only book I knew of written solely in French by a native-born American author. The setting was Manchester, New Hamp- shire, where my mother was raised. My mother whose favored language was French fell in love with L’Héritage. Her response to the book was, “That’s my life.” She was so smitten that she decided to translate the book into English for myself and her grand- children.
My mother was 82 at the time, very frail with painful rheumatoid arthritis and os- teoporosis, but her mind was clear and even though the joints in her hands were swollen her handwriting was more legible than mine ever was. She was a nurse with no training in literary matters; even so, she succeeded in translating the book, in its entirety, and in her own hand.
My mother’s passion for the world she grew up in and the effort she made to tell the Franco-American story through a novel was the act that capped my second awak- ening. But I was far from satisfied. I tried to think a little more deeply about my identity. I did what I always did when I was confused, I talked to myself. “It isn’t so much that you consciously denied your heritage; it’s that you consciously ignored it. Was that a sin? Maybe a little on the venial side. Funny that your thought patterns reflect your Catholic upbringing, funny because even as a boy you lacked faith. What is faith in God anyway? Maybe it’s a gene–some people have it and some people don’t.”
After this confused thinking I concluded that after all those years of self-imposed ignorance, I had to make amends. But how?
That voice in my head: “Ernie, you can’t make amends. You don’t speak any French, and you never will. It’s about time you realize that the source of your angst is that you omitted almost entirely any reference to your heritage in the books you have created around the fictional New Hampshire town of Darby.”
It was if I had discovered that bomb deep in the ground, but had no method for unearthing the bomb to defuse it. I had to do something. Years went by before I came up with a solution to my dilemma. I would construct the literary equivalent of a mod- est monument to the bomb, not so much for others, but for myself. For placement of this “monument,” I had only to look at the project I was working on in those days, a sixth Darby book that I called Spoonwood.
The protagonist was Frederick Elman, son of Howard and Elenore Elman, foundlings who did not know their origins. Frederick, grieving the death of his partner, raises his infant son in a primitive shelter in the woods, in part because it was cheap living but mainly to get away from his addiction to alcohol. As the novel progressed, Frederick made a modest living and saved his soul by carving elegant spoons from lo- cal woods.
The “monument” was a subplot that was not in the original outline and was not re- ally necessary. In fact, it threw a bit of a monkey wrench into the main plot. Frederick’s mother, Elenore–based somewhat in this work on my distant cousin and family chroni- cler, Connie Hamel Hebert–did research to discover her own origins. She failed in that enterprise, but along the way she discovered Howard’s origins.
Below is part of the scene, told in retrospect by Frederick. The family has just fin- ished supper at the kitchen table when Elenore addresses Howard.
“I didn’t find my people but I found yours.”
“This does not bode well,” my father says in a low growl.
“We’re not Elmans in this house.” My mother looks at me, and she looks at my fa- ther, and then she reaches into her handbag and gives my father a copy of a birth cer- tificate. “This is you, Howie–you.”
My father puts on his reading glasses and cautiously sniffs the document. He’s only learned to read in the last few years, and he always makes a big production out of the act, his mouth drawn tight, face puckered. Without a word or even a warning shot over the bow, he hands the paper to me.
My father was born in Caribou, Maine, sixty-one years ago May 29. But it’s the name that catches my attention. My father was christened Claude de Repentigny La- tour.
I can’t help snicker. “A Frenchman–you always made jokes about Frenchmen.” “I’ve been putting my foot in my mouth all my life,” he says. “The taste didn’t both-
er me before, don’t bother me now. Long as my driver’s license says Howard Elman, I’ll know who I am. Let’s have dessert.”
Howard had already formed an identity that suited him, and never mind if it was a fabrication that ran counter to actual family history. To Howard Elman, facts that con- tradicted his own fiction were irrelevant. But Elenore’s news was not irrelevant to Fred- erick Elman. He was still shaping a self, and he changed his name from Elman to La- tour.
This literary act was important in the Darby books, because Frederick’s son Birch Latour would go on to play a major role in the next book, Howard Elman’s Farewell. Meanwhile, Frederick started a new family under the Latour name. The point I made (to satisfy myself, since I didn’t think readers would notice, nor care if they did notice) was that the Elman name died with Howard Elman. Howard and Elenore’s descen- dants would carry a French name into the future.
In his research, Robert Perreault discovered connections between his own family and my uncle the priest, the right reverend Joseph Ernest Vaccarest, my full name be- ing Joseph Ernest Vaccarest Hebert. My uncle had married Rowbear’s parents. Row- bear also told me that Father Vac, as he was known, likely married the Franco-Ameri- can parents of author Grace Metalious, the author of Peyton place.
Grace Metalious’ maiden name was “DeRepentigny” so the scene I wrote in Spoonwood, linking Howard Elman’s true name, Claude de Repentigny Latour, was not only my modest attempt to lay a claim in my books to my Franco-American identi- ty (a little bit anyway) but also to enhance a French connection with another New Hampshire born Franco-American writer, who just happened to publish her books un- der her married name. Grace’s paternal grandmother, like my grandmother, was a Marcotte, so maybe that’s another connection. I like to think so.
That’s it. I did my best to make amends, but was it good enough? I don’t know, but I’m satisfied. Sorta.
I’ve been to Grand Isle, Louisiana, twice. The first time was by way of a pilgrimage to a revered literary place, the setting for the beginning and end of The Awakening, and I
was alone for the ride. The second time was only a couple years ago with Medora, and I was curious to see what had changed after twenty plus years. Answer: a lot. Taken to- gether the two trips told me that the most important personal message was not in Grand Isle. It was the road to Grand Isle.
Route 1 in Louisiana hugs Bayou Lafourche, originally a spinoff branch of the Mis- sissippi, starts in Donaldsonville, LA, and runs for 106 miles through low lands until fi- nally emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The road is sometimes called the longest main street in the world. I haven’t driven its entire length, just 65 miles from Route 90 to Grand Isle.
It does feel like a main street for most of its length with restaurants, shops, small businesses, real estate offices, and private homes running through small towns with names like Larose, Galliano, Cut off, and Golden Meadow. The bayou is always there right beside the highway. No barriers, so it’s always intimately in view. You see shrimp boats, house boats, row boats, contemporary and ancient putt-putts. I’ve traveled through all the lower 48 states and have never seen anything like the Lafourche Bayou road.
The first time I drove Route 1, the last leg was through marsh grasses. The second time, the grasses were gone. It was just shallow ocean and a new concrete highway that seemed to float above it. This stretch of the road produced an eerie feeling. I felt like a latter day Noah looking for land.
The feature of Route 1 that interested me and that might interest other Franco Americans is that the road has more visible French names per capita than anyplace in the United States I’ve visited. Bayou Lafourche was one of the first places settled by Acadian peoples after their dispersal in 1755 from what is now present day New Scot- land, excuse me, Nova Scotia. From all the names I saw, it appeared to me that the Acadians, now Cajuns, liked Bayou Lafourche and stuck around.
If, as I recommend, you drive this road someday stop at the Hebert Cemetery in Galliano and check out the French names on the monuments and tombs, which are all above ground. You’ll see a white cross that says, “Cemetery Land donated by Mrs. Onezime Hebert Sr., August 18, 1879.” I wish I could say that I visited the Hebert Cemetery, but I drove right by not know it was there. I found it online.
When you get almost to the end of the bayou where it empties into the Gulf, you can turn right to Port Lafourche or left across a bridge to Grand Isle.
The first time I was on Grand Isle, my pilgrimage road trip, I was alone in a pick up truck. I arrived at night, and have only fragments of memory of the town, though those fragments are vivid. I remember it was dark with few lights. I have a mental image of one structure, a mobile home that had been built on wood piers that had collapsed. I drove to the end of the island where I discovered a state park, closed, but no gate so I drove on.
I parked the truck and walked along the beach. Not another human being in sight. In my memory I reached a place along the shore where I could look into the depths. I stopped and stood there thinking about Edna Pontelliar and her choice to surrender herself to the sea, when I was startled by a splash. I got a glimpse of a huge sea crea- ture at least eight feet long that surfaced briefly, then slid down into the deep.
I thought at first it was my imagination, and then it came back. Was it a porpoise? The third time I saw a fin. Was it shark? I’ll never know. I was left with that feeling of the uncanny that I experienced reading The Awakening. I was so shaken that I hopped into the truck and drove straight back to my motel room eighty or so miles away.
My second visit to Grand Isle was in 2017 or 2018 with Medora in daylight. Though the air was warm, it was winter and off season. The town of Grand Isle seemed brand new, as if built only days before our arrival. New houses were everywhere, and they were all built on concrete or wooden piers ten feet high. The scene was quite
breathtaking. It was as if we’d driven onto the set of sci-fi movie. We made our way to the end of the island and the state park. We walked the beach. It was too windy to get comfortable, and we soon left. It was all very entertaining. It wasn’t until later that I re-alized that my personal haunting by the uncanny had gone away.
Ernest Hebert is the author of 13 published books and, forthcoming in 2021, WHIRLYBIRD ISLAND, a literary mystery. THE DOGS OF MARCH received a citation for excellence in 1980 from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, now PEN/Faulkner Foundation. The New York Times Book Review named LIVE FREE OR DIE a “notable book of the year” for 1989, and the New England Booksellers Association named Hebert their “fiction author of the year” in 2006.
Why Do I tell the Franco-American Story?
Our French Canadian Legacy — Past, Present, and Future
More than 2M speak French in the home in the US, and well over 10M Americans claim French ancestry, many of whose families were French Canadian.
The French presence in North America dates from the earliest days of European exploration, and until the fall of Quebec in 1759, much of what is now the United States and Canada was La Nouvelle France, and much of that became part of the US through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Many Acadiens came to Louisiana during the Grand Derangement, and both Acadiens and French Canadians (the term Québécois coming into use later) lived in northern New England. From the early nineteenth century into the early 20th century, more than a million French Canadians came to New England, primarily in search of work, building educational, social, and community institutions, and developing a French language press. It is estimated that today, more than 2M New Englanders are of French Canadian heritage.
Americans of French Canadian heritage, including Jack Kerouac, Grace Metalious, Robert Goulet, Prudent Beaudry (mayor of Los Angeles), and many others, have played a significant role in US history and culture.
My Personal Story of French and of Québec
I learned early on the importance of French from my mother, whose favorite reading at the time included works by Jack Kérouac and Jean-Paul Sartre. However, it was from family summer trips to Québec as I was growing up that I was drawn to the language, lifestyle, and culture of what was then generally referred to as French Canada.
A little later, as a college student studying French, I chose Québec for a study abroad experience that was to extend well beyond the initial summer session at Université Laval in
Québec City into a Baccalauréat spécialisé and a Maîtrise. While a UL student, I was blessed to have — among many wonderful professors — Jean-Louis Darbelnet as my thesis director and to have William Mackey, at the time Director of the Centre international de recherches sur le bilinguisme at Laval, as a teacher. I also had the opportunity to work at the university as a graduate assistant and to share my New York accent with a new generation of Québécois students of English.
The timing was perfect, and could not have been better. Arriving in Québec in the era of the Révolution tranquille, and not so very long after French President De Gaulle’s famous pronouncement of “Vive le Québec Libre,” I was able to read the works of Michel Tremblay and Anne Hébert, to watch “Les Beaux Dimanches” every week, to listen to Gilles Vigneault sing Mon Pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver, to see Pauline Julien sing Viens, un nouveau jour va se lever in concert, and to witness the official policy of bilingualism being implemented.
Since then, I have used French as a teacher of French to high school and college students, and also to adult learners, and as French language facilitator, working with French language winners, at the Many Languages One World (MLOW) Essay Contest and Global Youth Forum in which college and university students from around the world submitted essays on a topic related to multilingualism and global citizenship — in a learned second language that was also one of the official languages of the United Nations. Finalists were interviewed in the language of their essay, and winners — generally 10 for each of the 6 official languages — were brought to the US to spend a week on a US campus living in a multilingual community and preparing their presentations on a topic related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the language of their winning essay in the UN General Assembly Hall.
I have also had the opportunity to meet, to assist, and to teach students from around the French-speaking world, including those from Guadeloupe, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinée, Haïti, and more — not to mention many from France and Canada.
The Franco-American Bilingual and Bicultural Advantage — French as a Heritage Language and Global Competency
Two languages are generally considered to be global languages — French and English. They are spoken on every continent, and are prevalent throughout the world both as a mother tongue or as learned languages.
The worldwide community of French language speakers is represented by the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), observing its 50th anniversary in 2020, with 88 members. It is used on a daily basis by over 235M people around the world, and it is an official language of the United Nations, the International Olympic Committee, and many international organizations. French is the second most widely studied language both around the world and in the US.
In the Americas, the Centre de la Francophonie des Ameriques, with its Réseau des villes francophones et francophiles d’Amérique, represents the 33M French-speakers throughout the Americas. The French language is an official language of Canada and either an official or widely spoken language throughout the Caribbean and into South America.
Knowledge of French opens up a world of information, education, entertainment and culture, along with potential career benefits. French-language books, magazines, newspapers, and media are available and accessible around the world, and Francophone universities in many countries offer a world-class education. French is considered one of the most useful additional languages both in the US workplace and in international business.
In addition to being an opportunity to connect with your own personal story and with those of more than 2M Franco-Americans and the broader French language and Francophone cultural community in the US, the Americas, and beyond, knowledge of French is an advantage globally, throughout the extensive Francophone, or French-speaking, world and beyond.
This places all those with a knowledge of both French and English at an advantage both globally and locally, including Americans of French-Canadian heritage, through the ability to understand Francophone culture and its language that unites French speakers everywhere
Current Trends and Future Directions
Every story about language is individual and personal, yet also universal. We all have our own personal language story. We have regional accents depending on our geographic home, and use certain vocabulary based on geography and personal choice.
However interesting our individual language story may be, language and languages impact us all and serve as our most effective means for communicating with other cultures, whether in the workplace, in our communities, or as global citizens.
While it may seem that the French Canadian legacy, the French language, and Francophone culture are secure in their place in our hearts and minds, there are many Americans, including some of French heritage, who may be relatively unaware.
Telling the story of the French and Francophone presence in the US — through the arts and media, through in-person and online events, and through our daily lives — is essential to make the spirit of the French Canadian legacy and of Francophone culture in the US not only part of our historical past, but also part of our present and of our future.
The teaching and learning of French, whether through traditional foreign language education, through immersion programs, online, or through study abroad plays a vital role.
However, it is the use of French — both to tell the story of the French Canadian legacy and in our daily lives at home, in our communities, and in the workplace — that will determine the future of the French language and Francophone culture in the US.
Knowledge of the French language empowers us in terms of our own history, heritage, and cultural identity, and beyond our borders throughout the Americas and around the world, in our personal lives, our careers, and as global citizens.
Our French Canadian legacy is important because it is part of our US history, heritage, and cultural identity and, as such, deserves a place in the US narrative — in our schools, communities, media and the arts, and the public conversation.
Francophone culture in the United States, deeply rooted in our French and French Canadian legacy, also reflects the globalized world in its diversity, and is constantly evolving.
As a truly American language, it belongs not only to those in the US of French or French Canadian heritage, but to all Americans, as part of our American story and cultural identity and within the context of multilingualism as a global competency in a multilingual world.
Languages are used for communicating with others, either through their literature and history, or through their media and culture, through business, or just by talking with people from around the street and right next door. Let’s prioritize the use of French in our daily lives, in our communities, in the workplace, all day/every day — both our local terms and accents and the international, standard language — in order to communicate with the globalized world and our neighbor next door!
Kathleen Stein-Smith, PhD, Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques, is a dedicated foreign language educator and advocate.
She is Chair of the AATF (American Association of Teachers of French) Commission on Advocacy and a member of the ATA Education and Pedagogy Committee. She is also active in foreign language education associations, including the NECTFL Advisory Council, CSCTFL Advisory Council, and as a SCOLT sponsor. She is Communications Officer of the NCIS (National Coalition of Independent Scholars).
She has presented at numerous professional conferences at the state, regional, and national level, is the author of four books and numerous articles about the foreign language deficit, has given a TEDx talk on The U.S. foreign language deficit, has been interviewed by press and radio, and maintains a blog, “Language Matters.“
Why Do I tell the Franco-American Story?
Robert B. Perreault
Why do I tell any story? Because whenever I hear or read a good story, one that I enjoy and perhaps learn from, I want to share it with others. Or, if I undergo an experience, good, funny, bad or even ugly, from which I might draw a lesson, I want to share that with others, too. If I learn or experience something new, something entertaining and/or educational, I want to share that with others as well. Anything I find interesting that might also be of interest to someone else, I want to share it. If others are interested, entertained, and have learned something new from my having shared it with them, then I’m happy. And if not, there’s nothing lost, no harm done.
As a child, I loved stories. Being read to. Hearing other people tell their stories. How often, going back to ages three, four or five, before I started school, did my mother receive phone calls from my grandmother or an aunt or a friend, and she would tell me, “Va jouer” … “Go play.” So, I would go play with my toys in our den. But if my mother stayed on the phone too long and I’d get bored, I’d wander back, quietly, within earshot of where she was in the hallway on the phone, but not close enough so that she could see me. I would hear only her end of the conversation, but oh, the things I heard. And learned. Also, at bedtime, which was usually by seven o’clock, way too early as far as I was concerned, I’d sneak out of bed and sit at the top of the stairway and listen to my parents downstairs. As my mother washed the dishes and my father wiped them, they would share stories of that day, hers at home, his at work. And again, the things I heard. And learned. Also, if I’d been a bad boy during the day, my mother would tell my father what I’d done. Together, they would decide what to do about it. Knowing my fate in advance, I could prepare my plea for forgiveness and mercy.
But the point I’m trying to make, here, is that at a very early age, I learned about the value of stories. And as I grew up, not only did I want to continue hearing other people’s stories, I wanted to join in the telling and sharing of stories.
So why do I tell the Franco-American story? Because it’s my story. It’s about who I am. It’s about the people who gave me life, the people I was born into. After all, doesn’t everyone want to tell and share their own story?
As an aside, I should mention that for me, it wasn’t always the Franco-American story. In our family and in other families around us when I was growing up, we called ourselves Canadiens in French, and in English, we simply said we were “French.” We never used the term Canadien français or “French Canadian,” nor even “Franco-American”. In fact, it wasn’t until the seventh grade that I heard the term Franco-Américain or “Franco-American” applied to us. This occurred when I mentioned that I planned to go to Bishop Bradley High School, where all my classmates from l’École Saint-Georges in our hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire, were going. One of my aunts, Rachel Longval Robert, a member of La Fédération Féminine Franco-Américaine, immediately retorted, “Bradley, c’est pas franco.” (Bradley isn’t Franco). After which my grandfather said, in French, “No grandson of mine is going to that Irish school!” It was actually a diocesan high school for all ethnic groups, but that’s a story for another time.
Going back to my childhood, my maternal grandfather, Adolphe Robert, who was president of L’Association Canado-Américaine and a French-language journalist and author, often read me stories, fairy tales mostly, always in French, from books he had bought me while on his business trips to Montréal or Québec City. That, and records of French songs such as Au clair de la lune. Meanwhile, my grandmother told me family stories, also always in French. She talked about “le Canada” as if it were the Promised Land she hoped to live in some day, rather than the place her parents and siblings had left when she was young. My grandmother also taught me my prayers, the “Notre Père,” the “Je vous salue Marie,” and even the very long “Je crois en Dieu,” (bit by bit each time we visited my grandparents), so that when I entered first grade at l’École Saint-Georges, I had an easy time when we studied le catéchisme in French class. In fact, I had an easy time in French class also because French was my mother tongue, which I spoke exclusively until about age four, and which my parents, especially my mother, made sure I learned out of respect for my grandparents. Although my father and his side of the family all spoke French, with the exception of my widowed grandmother, they all tended to speak more English.
What I’ll never understand is why, when I was growing up, no one in my family, nor at l’École Saint-Georges, ever taught us about our Franco-American identity, that is, our culture, our history, our literature, etc. We lived it, but we never talked about it. Why did we eat tourtière? Why did we sing Ô Canada at school? Why did we speak French? All we were ever told was, “Parlez français, c’est votre langue.” (Speak French, it’s your language). They never told us why it was our language. Of course, we knew that our grandparents, or in some cases, our parents and even a few of our classmates, were born in “le Canada.” But in fifth grade, when we studied American history and learned about the explorers such as Columbus, the nun, herself a Franco-American, merely included Champlain, Joliet, Marquette, and La Salle among the others without once mentioning that these were our people! And in seventh grade, our readers in French class, which came from “le Canada,” had stories about the Jesuit martyrs and making maple syrup. The nun, who was herself born in “le Canada,” never once emphasized that we should be learning about and remembering these stories because they dealt with the history and culture of our ancestral homeland. No, this was merely for reading comprehension, answering questions about the text for the next exam, and then forgetting the information once we’d passed the exam. If I happen to remember all this, it’s because I couldn’t help remembering. After all, I came from a family that deeply lived our language and culture, unlike that of many of my classmates, for whom all of this was merely classroom subject matter.
Unfortunately, due to their lack of knowledge about themselves as a people, not to mention feeling inferior to others who put down our language and culture, many Franco-Americans tried to hide their ethnic identity. They stopped speaking French. They made sure that their children would never speak English with a “Canuck” accent. Some went as far as to change their family name, LeBlanc to White, and so on.
It’s gotten to a point where, in addition to those Franco-Americans who no longer identify as such, even those of us who’ve hung on to our language and culture* have become invisible outside of our ethnic group. We live our language and culture at home and we live them in our Franco-American organizational activities, etc., but we rarely display them in public as our parents and grandparents did back in the 1960s and earlier, when one could hear French spoken on the street, in stores, in restaurants, and elsewhere. Whenever I travel within the U.S. but outside of New England, if I say I’m Franco-American, people immediately think of spaghetti, because they’ve never heard of us. Whenever I travel to Québec and arrive at the border, the guards think I’m a Québécois and ask to see my U.S. green card because they can’t believe that someone born in the U.S. can speak fluent French. They’ve never heard of Franco-Americans, even though we descend from the Québécois. Our ancestors’ having left the homeland is a stain on Québec, so with the exception of a few scholars of French North American culture, they’ve wiped us from their historical memory. I then offer to tell the guards my Franco-American story. Some listen with fascination and forget about asking me if I’m bringing any drugs or firearms into their country. Others get bored and wave me on, also without asking me all those questions. And wherever I go in France, the minute I open my mouth, they take me for a Québécois. When I tell them I’m from the U.S., they take me for a Louisiana Cajun. When I tell them I’m a New England Franco-American, they scratch their heads. And then, if they’re willing to listen, I tell them the Franco-American story.
By way of example, my wife, Claudette Ouellette, and I raised our son in French. We let him easily pick up English outside the home, just as we did as children back in the early 1950s. With our help and encouragement, our son, in turn, is raising his two children also in French, along with his wife, a former student in my conversational French class. From their birth until they entered school, I kept our grandchildren two days per week during which time we spoke French exclusively. Moreover, I sang them songs and read them stories in French, just as my grandfather had done with me. Whenever we’ve traveled to Québec, our grandchildren have easily communicated with our relatives and ordered their own food in restaurants. Little by little, they are learning the Franco-American story. After all, education, as well as charity, begins at home.
So, for the sake of our people who don’t know their own story, as well as for anyone outside our ethnic group who is interested to hear our story, my story, I’m willing to tell all those stories. And if learning the Franco-American story makes someone feel good about him or herself and proud to belong to our people, then I’m happy.
To my fellow Franco-American storytellers: Tell it en français, franglais or English. But tell it!
* Why I’ve hung on to our language and culture is way too long a story to tell here, so if you’re interested, here’s a shameless plug: please read the chapter entitled “Old Parochial School Days” in my book, Franco-American Life and Culture in Manchester, New Hampshire: Vivre la Différence (Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2010, pp. 77-94).
Since 1973, Manchester, N.H. native and lifelong resident Robert B. Perreault has worked in various capacities to promote Manchester’s history and New England Franco-American culture. His works of nonfiction and fiction, written in French, in English or in both languages, include seven books and more than 160 articles, essays, short stories, etc., published in the U.S., French Canada or France. He holds a B.A. in sociology from Saint Anselm College (1972), an M.A. in French with specialization in New England Franco-American Studies from Rhode Island College (1981), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University (2008). Since 1988, he has taught conversational French in the Native Speaker Program at his alma mater, Saint Anselm College.
Why do I tell the Franco-American Story?
What other story would I tell? The Franco-American story is the one I know, the water I swim in. It is me and I am it.
We all operate from a place of intersectional identities. I am a sixty-two year old woman of Franco-American heritage, born and raised in Maine, fifteen miles from Québec. I continue to live in Maine, carving out a living as a writer and performer. (I’m sure there other identities in there, too.) Being Franco-American is one of the lenses through which I see the world. Without that lens, things would be out of focus. I would be out of focus.
I tell my Franco-American story for the same reason I tell all stories: to understand the world and my place in it. By knowing and reflecting upon my past, I can own my present and create my future.
A more important question for me is, “Why do I tell people I’m telling the Franco-American story?” To that I answer, Because they need to know.
Not all of what I create is overtly about the Franco-American experience, but that influence is always there. As a writer and performer, I have a unique platform from which to educate, and I see that as both an opportunity and an obligation.
When I’m being interviewed, I always self-identify as Franco-American and talk about our rich history and the ongoing vibrancy of our culture. As an author, when delivering a book reading, part of my presentation is about the deliberate choices I made and continue to make when creating my Maine humor character, Ida LeClair. Though she speaks English with a Maine accent, she’s Franco-American. I draw a distinction between the Yankee culture traditionally associated with Maine humor, one of both financial and emotional frugality, and Ida’s joie de vivre. I speak about how intentional I am when choosing names for Ida’s fictional world of Mahoosuc Mills, making sure the French names are represented in proper proportion to the English, for that part of rural Maine.
I remember the first time I performed Ida: Woman Who Runs with the Moose! at the Public Theater in Lewiston, ME (an old mill town with a large Franco-American population). It was for a sold out crowd of 300. At the end of the first act, I’m telling the story of Ida’s wedding reception. She says, “We knew our marriage was official when Emile Dugal got up and sang, ‘Prendre Un P’tit Coup’. Every wedding in town, the minute he’d get a buzz on, he’d sing the same song, and everyone joined in.” As Ida, I began to sing, and the audience started, first softly, then louder, to sing along. That memory still brings tears to my eyes. Franco-Americans, so often referred to as the “silent minority,” desperately need to be seen and heard. We are thirsty for it.
Opportunities to self-identify as Franco-American are all around us, and I believe we need to profiter du présent (seize the day) and say something. If we meet someone with a French name, ask them if they’re Franco-American, where they’re from. If a person says to you, “I speak French but couldn’t understand anyone up in Quebec,” gently educate them about the history of our language and how it changed upon arrival to these shores (not unlike American English). If another hyphenated American is speaking about their culture, and you’re Franco-American, jump into the conversation and share about ours. The Franco-American experience is important and the world needs to be aware of that.
We are all ambassadors for our culture. It is our job, our privilege to make the invisible visible, to claim our place on the stage, on the page and wherever we live. Fellow Franco-Americans, let’s speak up and be part of the global conversation.
Selected by Portland Magazine as one of the “Ten Most Intriguing People in Maine,” award winning writer and performer Susan Poulin is a leader in bringing a female voice to New England storytelling and humor. She is the author of eleven plays, six of which feature her alter ego, Ida LeClair, “the funniest woman in Maine.” Susan writes the popular Maine humor blog and podcast, Just Ask Ida, and is the author of Finding Your Inner Moose: Ida LeClair’s Guide to Living the Good Life and The Sweet Life: Ida LeClair’s Guide to Love and Marriage published by Islandport Press. Check out Susan’s popular TEDxPortsmouth Talk about her Franco-American experience at poolyle.com
Why do I tell the Franco-American Story?
Why questions are ambiguous. The question “Why do you tell this story?” can mean “What was the impetus that gave rise to you telling this story?” Or “why” can mean “What is your purpose in telling this story?” I’ll speak first to how I started telling the Franco-American story and then to what might be some purposes in telling it.
I have always been interested in the origins of things. When confronted by anything from a style of music, to the X/Y coordinate system in algebra, I would wonder how it came to be, how it developed, and who was involved. I’m unclear on the origin of this interest in origins. My mother’s storytelling and her interests certainly influenced me.
I’ve been a storyteller since I can remember. I imagined my own stories and was both the creator and the audience for them. Eventually, I wrote them down. I started writing when I was 11. I wrote about 100 pages of a sci-fi novel around that time, believe it or not. My interests turned toward nonfiction in high school, philosophy and history in particular. I read, researched, and scratched naïve notes in loose leaf notebooks. I’d write, and I did, when the only one who read it was me.
As I recount in the introduction to my book A Distinct Alien Race, it was at age 19, while I was in college, that my father died. He was buried with my mother’s family in Biddeford, Maine where there is a vast Franco-American cemetery where almost all of the text, on almost all of the gravestones, is in French. At least it was at that time. It’s not just a few gravestones, either, but many thousands, spreading out over acres. When the priest who came to read the prayers at the burial asked if we wanted them read in French or in English, I knew I had to explore these origins.
After getting a college degree I slowly developed a career as a researcher, writer and editor for academics, authors, businesses, and consulting firms. I have a small number of academic citations in some of the areas I researched and wrote about for my clients. It seems obvious, in retrospect, that I would combine my interest in Franco-American origins with my profession. But when I started learning in detail about the Franco-American story, I didn’t conceive of myself as a public storyteller of that particular story.
Starting around the turn of the 21st century, I occupied myself at almost every possible moment at the New England Historic Genealogical Society library in Boston. I filled notebook after spiral bound notebook with handwritten scrawls of genealogical and historical information, extracted from the library like impacted wisdom teeth. My notes dealt with history as much as with genealogy. On the Number One bus between Comm Ave., Boston and Harvard Square, Cambridge, I would pour over what I had written in my notebook that day, often typing up and organizing the notes once I got home. I was telling these fragments of Franco-American stories to myself, and then to my sister, and to one or two other people in my family. I wasn’t writing a book yet.
It was only when people asked if I were writing a book, or suggested I write one, that my interest began to go public. I wrote a couple of articles for publications like Le Forum out of the University of Maine, Orono, and I had a website, and then a blog. I read every year at the gathering of writers and artists under the auspices of the Franco-American Center at the University in Orono. It was the response to these early forays into telling the story that encouraged me to make my research and writing on these topics public, leading to speaking engagements, a book, articles in mainstream publications like Smithsonian and TIME, and more speaking.
That’s a sketch of the series of events that led me to tell the Franco-American story. But why bother telling Franco-American stories?
Why do we tell any story? Because stories make meaning of our lives. It looks as though humans can’t live without making meaning. If anything, we have a glut of meaning. We tell so many stories about ourselves and others that we populate the universe with our meanings.
Let’s not understate the weight of storytelling. The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Bhagavad Gita, The Bible consist, in whole or in part, of stories. Of such are derived entire civilizations and worldviews. Stories bring worlds into existence.
I heard a vague story growing up about my Acadian great-great-grandfather Joseph Doucette and his involvement in the Tenant League Riots on Prince Edward Island. The story, as sketchy as it was, conveyed volumes. The story situated my ancestors in a hierarchy and taught me that there was some “we” who had a prescribed relationship to that hierarchy. It also conveyed the perception that our ancestors were the underdogs, struggling against a perceived injustice, and that the “bad guys” were the English. This was different from most of my friends in the good ol’ USA for whom the English were friends and allies, as most Americans in the generations born after World War II regard them. The story also suggested that there was a difference between what was legally binding and what was morally right.
Along with the story came the emotionality of it: we were the ones fighting. There was conflict, loss, hope, pride a whole set of feelings that came along with the story.
I’m also aware of the potentially dangerous limitations of any origin story, storyteller, and storytelling. No telling is comprehensive, none definitively true in an apodictic sense or even in an emotional sense. I have no illusion that my telling of the Franco-American story is complete or definitive.
To craft a narrative is like carving a statue out of marble, a great deal is left on the scrap heap. Stories thrive on omission, on emphasis, on juxtaposition of this detail placed like a diamond in this setting rather than that one. Their incompleteness – the narrative equivalent of negative space – gives them form and life.
There are so many Franco-American stories that I’m unable or incompetent to tell them all. It is impossible to tell it all and remain coherent. The truth of Franco-Americans is not the fragments I happen to have told, but all of the stories, the sum total of all tales – both real and those we imagined to be true.
So, why do I tell the Franco-American story?
Because my father died when I was 19 and I never had a chance to have an adult relationship with him.
Because I’m a storyteller from way back, and I’ve found a juicy yarn, that I thought I could tell well.
Because it makes meaning for me and, it seems, for others, too.
Because history is for the present. The fact that we never learn from the past doesn’t mean it’s useless to tell the stories.
Because if we don’t tell the stories the people who said “it’s the rabble who are leaving” Québec; the people who said we were a “low and sordid people,” that we had been kept “a distinct alien race”; the Klan, eugenics advocates, and their ilk, will win. Can’t have that.
Because my forebears lived and died in those mill towns and their spirits won’t let me not tell the tale.
Because, now, there’s someone out there listening.
Because it’s mine to tell.
David Vermette is a Franco-American writer and researcher originally from Massachusetts. He is the author of the book A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2018). His blog is French North America.
Why do I tell the Franco-American story?
University of Maine – Franco American Programs
Am I a Franco American? Yes, of course I am. My mother is a Bouchard, my grandmothers were Clavettes, Bosses, and Michauds. I have lived the paradigmatic story of generational language loss. I grew up surrounded by cousins, uncles and aunts, and grandparents as my parents maintained and cultivated extended familial networks. I can trace my family’s genealogy and have visited the churches in France where my ancestors were baptized and married in the 1600s before they moved to North America. I have gone with my family to pray in the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré. I come from a family that values work of the hands and spends its free time together doing manual labor on “projects.” Yet despite this identifiable ethnic life, perhaps Jacques Derrida articulates my experience of this “French fact” best, “there is no right of property over inheritance. That’s the paradox. I am always the tenant of an inheritance” (Derrida, Echographies of Television, 112). I live this ethnic identity, though it is not mine alone to own. Maybe it is this sense of being a tenant — of “inhabiting” rather than “owning” — that draws me to listening to the Franco-American story rather than to telling it. Or, perhaps as a Franco-American woman, my reluctance to “tell the Franco-American story” in public is itself a deeply ethnic and gendered stance. I find I am much more comfortable behind the scenes, and I see this in others as well. Or, possibly my preference for listening is motivated by the deafness of so many others. Despite constituting one of the largest concentrations of French speakers in the United States and one of the largest French-Canadian heritage communities outside of Québec, Franco Americans could be defined by their lack of recognition. Franco Americans have been referred to as the Quiet Presence (Dyke Hendrickson) and one of the Hidden Minorities (Joan H. Rollins). Franco Americans are rarely included in literature dedicated to the teaching of white ethnicity or in studies of white ethnic communities in the United States. Not a single Franco-American text, for example, is included in Werner Sollors’ The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature even though the first Franco American text Jeanne la fileuse was published in French in 1878 in Fall River, Massachusetts. And because many Franco Americans are no longer fluently francophone and now reside outside Canada, Franco Americans are often absent from work on the “francophones hors-Québec.” Whatever the cause, I find I am called to listen to the Franco-American story rather than tell it.
At University of Maine in Orono where I work with Lisa Michaud and Jacob Albert, we have sought to make the Franco American Centre into a place where people are heard and seen as Franco Americans. I watch my aunts and uncles; I see how different they are with their family than the way they are public. We want to make the Franco American Centre into a place where Franco Americans can come and feel at home even though it is a public space. Lisa organizes events, is developing a genealogical library, and edits Le Forum, and we work together to organize each year a gathering for Franco American writers and artists. Jacob Albert and I are working with a team of scholars and archivists from Assumption College, St. Anselm’s, USM, and UMFK to develop a portal to Franco American documents and sources. As we build this web-based tool, we want to make sure that Franco Americans can access this information in culturally appropriate ways. We all recognize the unique ways Franco Americans organize information and want to make sure that items in the portal are accessible via the categories that are important to Franco Americans, like family surnames or places. We all strive in our work to recognize the unique ways of being of Franco Americans and provide spaces where those ways of being are recognized and heard. We strive to make the Franco American Centre a place where we can be our ethnic selves together.
In my scholarly work, I study Franco American writers. I read all that I can by Franco Americans — from the classics like Canuck by Camille Lessard-Bissonette and Jeanne la Fileuse by Honoré Beaugrande to the more contemporary writings written in English. I think that seeing these writings as Franco American – even if it is written in English –is key to understanding them. Sometimes, writers make it easy to see how they are writing a Franco-American story. They not only take Franco-American experience as the content but they also write either in Franco American French or include it in their dialogues. Other writers, even though write in English, still take as their subject matter Franco American lives. Still others, though not necessarily concentrating on the Franco American story, make space for it in various ways. In the United States, for example, Franco-American ethnicity is conceptualized within a narrative of assimilation that places the relevance of ethnic identity into a past gone by. I think that Franco-American writers interact with this narrative by signifying their ethnic identity in class terms. Alan Bérubé in his autobiographical essay, “Intellectual Desire” finds his father’s ethnic agency in the active identification with a working class status: “my father was offered a low-level management position at work, which he turned down… But there was more to his refusal than class panic over becoming ‘one of them.’ The distance he had traveled – away from his French working-class family, their farm, their land – was now so far from where he’d started that he began to lose the ground beneath his feet. He wanted to go home” (54). In many Franco-American texts, ethnic identity is signified through the intentional identification with a working class status; the refusal of upward mobility signifies an active embrace of an ethnic past and creation of an ethnic present. As a literary scholar, I focus on the way these issues are explored in literature, and I believe that literature offers insight into the interplay between the social and the personal not available through other means.
Susan Pinette a Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures and Director of Franco American Programs at The University of Maine. She was born and raised in Maine and received her doctorate in French at the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines contemporary Franco American literature.
Why Do I Tell the Franco-American Story?
I believe it is important to know your roots. I believe that you have a better chance to know who you are if you know where you come from, if you know how you got to where you are today. Why is it important to know who you are? I believe you will lead a more fulfilling life if you have a sense of how you fit in the larger flow of humanity. It’s about what I call coherence, which I take to mean having a unified sense of being, a feeling of being whole in body and soul and mind. It’s the opposite of being alienated, the feeling of being disconnected from society. Knowing who you are and knowing something about where you are gives a person a better chance of feeling a sense of community, a sense of belonging to something larger than your individual self.
Who am I? has the simplicity of the old Baltimore Catechism question, Who made me? In Catholic elementary school a lot of answers were provided. Just memorize what’s in the book. Just listen to the priest at Mass. Just do what Sister Therese de L’Enfant de Jesus says. They offered a lot of answers after providing the questions as well. But in all those school days in a French Catholic school, I don’t recall any of the authorities telling us how the French Canadians wound up in Dracut, Mass. There was no local history in school. They customs, yes, like singing the Canadian national anthem in French, and the flag of Quebec in the classroom next to the red, white, and blue U.S. flag. Sometimes the Mass was in French. Early on it was in Latin in my day. Then it was English with the priest facing the faithful in the pews. “Pray, pay, and obey,” was the unspoken game plan. We had a few “French” items in the school cafeteria like Chinese Pie or Pâté Chinois, the regional concoction that is a twist on Shepherd’s Pie from Ireland and Britain. Until the canonical law changed, we were not served any meat on Fridays. Gooey mac and cheese, tomato-rice soup, fish sticks. We had French language day on Thursdays and French courses, grammar and conversation, all the time. At home my parents spoke French to my grandparents and their siblings (not all the time). We visited relatives on New Year’s Day, which is special for the French Canadian-Americans. The older generations told stories about the immigrants and subsequent generations. My ancestors on both sides came to Lowell, Mass., in 1880. Despite all this, my generation turned out to be highly American in identity.
As someone interested in history, I always had a sense of my past and was curious but not in any extraordinary way. I had lost my ability to speak French fluently, even semi-fluently, after high school or likely before public high school. One of my brothers attended a French Catholic high school, but I chose not to. As the years went on, I began to think more about my family’s origins. When my son was born in 1995, the sixth generation of our line in Lowell, he came to my wife and I with her 100 percent Irish roots stretching back to 1870 in the city and my 100 percent French background. I realized that he would be far from his ethnic origins. It would be up to me to give him some grounding so that he would have an understanding of where he comes from. His arrival heightened my commitment to tell the French Canadian-American story in my writing, both the Lowell French story and my family’s place in it. I’m still reconstructing the family experience. Fortunately, two of my aunts had researched the genealogy of the Marion and Roy lines as far back as the mid-1600s in Normandy, France. The paper trail doesn’t go back farther, so far. I’ll keep at it.
And so, as a writer, I have a way to tell the story of my family, my community, my people. The knowledge has added texture to my experience. Embracing the identity has opened up connections to other people in New England, in Quebec, around the U.S., and abroad. I’m part of a larger effort to remember. There’s a transcript of an interview with a French Canadian-American woman from Lowell from the 1980s, I think. In it, she tells stories about the Lowell French in her time, early 20th century, and she sings songs. The lyrics are reproduced. Speaking to the interviewer, she says at one point, “I’m a memory worker.” That captures what’s going on in this telling of the French story in America. Those of us who write, speak, sing, research, and more are all memory workers in the big Memory Bank.
— Paul Marion, March 25, 2020
Paul Marion was born in Lowell, Mass., in 1954. He grew up in French Canadian-American parishes in Lowell (St. Louis de France) and next door in Dracut (Ste. Therese). His ancestors left Quebec in 1880 to settle in Lowell where they could earn a living as carpenters, textile mill operatives, and grocers. After Catholic elementary school and public high school, he graduated from the University of Massachusetts in Lowell (political science) and then studied in the master of fine arts program in writing at the University of California in Irvine.
He worked as an administrator for the U.S. Dept. of the Interior in the development of a national park in Lowell and also managed community relations and cultural affairs for UMass Lowell. In 1978, he established a small publishing company, Loom Press, which still publishes work by authors in his region.
He is the author of several books of poetry including Union River: Poems and Sketches (Bootstrap Press, 2017) and editor of Jack Kerouac’s early writing, Atop an Underwood (Viking/Penguin, 1999). His book Mill Power chronicles the renaissance of Lowell in the late 20th century, a case study of a post-industrial city reviving itself. His poems and essays been published widely in journals and anthologies. For more information, see www.paulmarion.com for more information.
He lives in Amesbury, Mass., with his wife, Rosemary, an art historian and former community and campus program manager. Their son, Joseph, lives in New York City.
Why do I tell the Franco-American story?
Jason L. Newton
Because it is the story of my family but also because it is part of the story of a landscape. When I was growing up I didn’t know much about my French-Canadian heritage. I wasn’t aware that my family came from a part of Canada where people spoke French. I’m not sure that I even knew there was a part of Canada that spoke French! I never learned the language and my family name, Newton, is about the furthest thing from a Franco-American name as there can be.
I started to learn about my French-Canadian roots during annual trips to my family camp in the forests around the village of Tupper Lake in New York’s Adirondack State Park. My family went there most summers and on the way we passed a twelve-foot-tall wooden lumberjack statue. At our family camp, we made campfires, swam in the lake, and hiked up mountain trails that revealed spectacular views of a great forest dotted with little communities. There I met family with the last names Dechene and Delair. I heard stories of my grandparents who grew up in Tupper Lake learning both French and English from Catholic nuns who judged their students’ performances with raps from the end of a yardstick!
In Tupper Lake I learned that my great-great grandparents were part of the large migration of French Canadians to America that happened between 1850 and 1930. By 1901 almost one quarter of the entire population of Québec moved to America. Ninety-two per cent of these immigrants settled in regions next to the Canadian border like the Adirondacks.
I also learned that my family was a little different from other French-Canadian immigrant families, most of whom settled in industrial cities. My family moved into rural wilderness land. They didn’t work in factories but in the forests. They were lumberjacks like the statue that we drove by every summer! My family was part of a class that became symbols of masculinity and examples of the affinity that Americans formed with the natural world through work. Despite their mythical occupation they were not, in fact, native-born Americans; they probably didn’t even know much English!
The lumberjack figure, and references to it were found all over Tupper Lake. There was the predominate statue that I drove by but there was also the Lumberjack Inn on Main street that served up pancakes to hungry vacationers. The local book shops sold books with tales of historical adventures in the old logging camps and the high school has the lumberjack as its mascot. Tourists can buy lumberjack tee-shirts at the local gas stations, and every summer there is a Woodsmen’s Day festival which draws large crowds. For nearly 100 years forest product manufacturing was a mainstay of the Adirondack economy. By the 1930s the wood products industry was in decline. In the 1950s my grandparents moved downstate for jobs, becoming part of a trend of youth outmigration that had been hampering economic progress in the area since the late nineteenth century.
As I screwed around with the dull firewood axe we had at my camp, I used to wonder what happened to the lumberjacks. The trees were here, but I saw no signs of cutting. Across the street from my camp was a dense forest of mixed second growth trees where there were no houses, camps, or even trails. This was privately owned land, part of the partnership between citizen landholders and the state government that make the Adirondacks unique. While I was thinking about the land and the work, I also used to think about why my relatives chose to settle here, in the woods, instead of in the cities which seemed like they would have presented so many more opportunities for newly arrived immigrants.
These thoughts about my family and the Adirondack landscape stayed with me throughout my adolescents but it wasn’t until college that I was given the time and resources to delve into them. Inspired by my family history and the Adirondack landscape I decided to write my undergraduate thesis on the history of loggers in Northern New York. I hoped this paper would explain the experience of rural people in America during industrialization but I also hoped the research would give me more insight about what life was like for my ancestors. After I finished the thesis, I knew quite a bit about what my family had done for a living but I never really looked deeply into the details of my actual family history. I was more interested in exploring the experiences of the class of people that my family was a part of: rural, working-class immigrants.
While researching, I noticed patterns in American and British-Canadian discussions about French Canadian workers. According to these late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sources, the French didn’t just happen to work in the woods, they were apparently naturally suited to the forest landscape. This sentiment is exemplified by this quote from Adirondack scholar Alfred Donaldson who wrote in the 1920s that French Canadians “seemed naturally endowed with the agility, recklessness, and immunity to exposure that must combine to make them expert. They have always predominated as a race in the lumbering operations.”
These recurring expressions about the type of work that French Canadians excelled at might have contributed to the high proportion of French in the logging industry. In 1900, 33.6% of New England “woodchoppers, lumbermen [or] raftsmen” were French-Canadian immigrants. The lumber industry was second only to the brick and tile making industries in terms of the highest percentage of French-Canadian immigrants employed. Though I took note of these patterns in my thesis, I still didn’t have the time to explore the issue fully in a one-year project.
These loose ends pushed me to graduate school where I continued to work on the topic. I decided to expand my range of study to include the loggers and the landscape across not just Northern New York but also Northern New England. My new area of study was a multiple state bioregion known as the Northern Forest.
During my grad school research I realized that it was not just Adirondackers who saw a unique connection between French Canadians and woodswork but also sources from across New England and New York. I began collecting these sources while reading more about French Canadian immigration and Franco-American history. I learned about famous French Canadians like the one-time world’s strongest man Louis Cyr and the beatnik Jack Kerouac.
I decided to devote a chapter of my graduate dissertation to the pattern I had found in the sources about the French-Canadian connection to woodswork. It turned out that this wasn’t unique to the French-Canadian experience. American industrialists, government officials, and workers used their naive understanding of immigrant culture and racial features to categorize immigrants depending on the type of work each immigrant group was apparently uniquely suited to perform. This type of racial thinking was responsible for other types of occupational streaming and ethnically based immigrant labor systems like the Italian padrone system, tenement sweating in New York City and, by the 1940s and 50s, a federally sanctioned guest worker arrangement for French Canadians in the woods of the Northeast known as the bonded labor system. This guest worker program paralleled the more famous (and larger) bracero Mexican farm worker program in the American west and southwest. Other historians and I have called this phenomenon “racial management.” I published my work on this issue in the Canadian labor history journal Labour/La Travail in 2016. Personally, this research gave me a sense of why my family might have chosen, or been enticed, to settle in the Adirondacks.
I still have not had time to really dig into my own family history. I have been devoting my time to telling the story of the industrialization of the Northern Forest landscape, and French-Canadian immigration is only one part—albeit and important part—of that story. This larger story is what I’m currently writing a book about. When I am not writing, I am teaching about American workers at Cornell, devoting some time in class to explaining to undergraduates what I learned about immigration and industrialization. My students even read a little about French-Canadian lumberjacks! I do plan to collect more information about my family history over time. Perhaps what I find will exposed new patterns in the Franco-American experience that I can expand on in the future.
Jason L. Newton is a visiting assistant professor of history at Cornell University. His book manuscript, Cutover Capitalism: The Industrialization of the Northern Forest, 1850-1950, is a history of the changing types of labor performed by people, trees, and the landscape in the American Northeast as that area industrialized. He has also published on nature, race, and immigration. He teaches classes on labor and the environment. Jason also appeared on episode 18 where he talked about his article “These French Canadian of the Woods are Half-Wild Folk”: Wilderness, Whiteness, and Work in North America, 1840–1955.
“Some of this material has appeared in print elsewhere. Please see, Newton, Jason L. ‘”These French Canadian of the Woods are Half-Wild Folk”: Wilderness, Whiteness, and Work in North America, 1840-1955.’ Labour/Le Travail 77 (2016): 121-150; Newton, Jason L., ‘Forging Titans: The Rise of Industrial Capitalism in the Northern Forest, 1850-1950’ (2017). Dissertations – ALL. 794.
Why I Tell the Franco-American History
We’ve only scratched the surface.
With six syntheses in as many decades, hundreds of academic articles, a vast field of memoirs and oral interviews, documentary films, a number of thought-provoking blogs, and now multiple podcasts, one would think that the Franco-American past has given all of its secrets.
I wouldn’t claim perfect originality in all of my research; I am refining and incrementally adding to the body of research as much as I am unearthing long-forgotten stories. Still, I know of archival collections and published sources that have hardly been touched by contemporary scholars. Vast digitization projects have revolutionized research and now highlight just how little of the past we have explored.
For history nerds like me, that’s pretty darn exciting.
But will these sources substantially change how we view the Franco-American past? Naturally, time will tell—the answer you would expect from a historian. At the very least, the last half-century has shown that this past is infinitely more complex than certain early histories indicated.
Standard narratives organized around survivance and mill work, as in the aptly-titled Steeples and Smokestacks, remain. Yet, we are now more aware of women’s essential role in the household economy, more attuned to the gendered aspects of everyday life in Little Canadas. We have begun to look beyond Woonsocket, Fall River, Lowell, Manchester, and Lewiston in order to understand the variety of Franco experiences from Putnam to Salem, Barre to Brunswick. We are recognizing that there was more to these experiences than food and fights over pew rents. (Don’t get me wrong: I do like my meat pie and altar-cations as much as the next person.)
Older histories often portrayed the Little Canadas in terms that echoed their nativist detractors. Clerical authorities depicted the Little Canadas as small citadels, insulated from American materialism, where Francos followed their priests in all things and preserved a “clannish” spirit. More recently, we have come to appreciate the many points of connection between immigrant communities and mainstream U.S. society (whatever that may mean).
We can now study diverse Franco experiences and honor those different journeys without alleging treason—whether this woman fell for an Irishman or that man spoke English to feed his children.
We can now question les vaches sacrées.
As we open up all of these definitions, the field of Franco-American history becomes even wider. This is an incredible time for all things Franco—in research as well as in the realm of cultural programming.
My own foray in this field began at the University of New Hampshire, when I decided to pursue something I vaguely recalled from classes taken in Quebec—something about nineteenth-century emigration. Vague indeed: outside of academic works, the diaspora receives little attention, even less now that a generation with personal ties to Franco-Americans is passing from the scene.
Of course, this is an American story: Franco-Americans’ experiences tell us a great deal about religious conflict, nativism, immigration policy, labor activism, political mobilization, and economic development in the United States. But, still today, theirs is also a Canadian story. The few sentences we find about la grande saignée in Quebec textbooks fail to do justice to nineteenth-century economic woes, repatriation efforts, half-baked colonization schemes, continuing attention to Franco communities in newspapers into the 1950s, the influence of the sovereignty movement, and the availability of Quebec funds for Franco initiatives.
I have sought to emphasize French-Canadian immigrants’ place in both of these national sagas by contributing articles to academic journals. From upstate New York in the 1780s to Fall River and Barre more than a century later, I have followed compelling stories with little regard to time or place. This, after all, is not a story that begins in industrial New England in 1865 only to end there three generations later. The story must be so broad as to include Revolutionary War soldiers and those who disregard doctors’ orders and travel to Manchester every June.
Although this whole business of academic journals may seem like the stuff of ivory towers, they are an important medium for reaching the next generation of researchers, communicating with teachers, and influencing textbooks-in-the-making. I have no grand illusions about the value of own my research, but I do believe in the significance of the Franco-American
story stories. Every avenue ought to be explored in making that case.
It is in that spirit that I launched my blog, which offers a taste of my findings with less jargon and without the unwelcome paywalls. Perhaps yet more people, Franco-American or not, will join the conversation and the effort as a result.
After all, we’ve only scratched the surface.
Patrick Lacroix is a native of Cowansville, Quebec, and spent many years in New Hampshire, where he earned a doctoral degree in history. He now teaches in Nova Scotia. You can follow his research on Franco-Americans at his blog.