Thursday, August 26, 2010

Book Review - Pelagie, The Return to Acadie by Antonine Maillet

Three years ago Sweetie and I found ourselves in Cheticamp, Nova Scotia at dinner time.  We stopped at Restaurant Acadien for dinner.  Cheticamp claims to be the heart of L'Acadie or in English, Acadia.  The food had a home cooked, family style nature to it and was wholesome and simple.  Attached to the restaurant was a cute gift shop with lots of locally created crafts and trinkets.  We like to learn more about the local culture through books and found Pelagie on a shelf there.  The idea is to enhance the enjoyment of our trip by returning there in local literature upon our arrival home.

L'Acadie covered much of the Maritime Provinces of Canada and some of New England.  The French first sent settlers to the area in 1604.  England and France skirmished and negotiated over the area several times.  In the summer of 1755 at the out break of the French and Indian war, an American extension of the Seven Years War between France and England, the British claimed control of Acadia and violently uprooted and deported the Acadians who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the King of England.  They were scattered abroad from Boston to Louisiana and around the Caribbean basin.  Those who gathered in the bayous of Louisiana became what are now known as the Cajuns, a corrupted form of the word Acadians.

Widow of the Great Disruption (what they called the time of deportation) Pelagie LeBlanc and her children, who'd wound up in Georgia, scratched up a cart and six oxen and after 15 years in exile; determined to go home.  They set out in 1770 and crossed the continent South to North over the course of the next ten years.  You will surely notice that it was the same ten years as the American Revolution.  This little marvel chronicles the hardship, travail, joy and triumph of that epic journey.  The journey became more than a long trip home, it became about the preservation of a people, a history and a culture.

Pelagie, The Return to Acadie was originally written in French and was the first foreign novel to receive France's highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt.  I would love to have been able to read it in French.  The English translation by Philip Stratford is masterful, though and did wonderful justice to the original.

The Acadians were mostly illiterate at the time and so many of the stories of the Great Disruption have been passed down in legend and tale.  The book was written in that style.  Written as though an old storyteller was sharing it with company around the hearth.  As the story is told, the audience, interjects their vocalized comments, contrary versions and exclamations.  The book is written as the collective voice of modern Acadie as if gathered to recite again the wonderful story of the woman who climbed the continent gathering Acadians as she went.  Pelagie-the-cart she is called, accompanied by Belonie the chinwagging centenarian storyteller.  The voice in the book is Louis-a-Belonie-a-Belonie-a-Thaddee-a-Belonie-le-Vieus Mailett, great grandson of the old chinwagger himself, whose mission was to follow the footsteps of his storytelling predecessors.  Also in attendance is Pelagie-the-Grouch, daughter of Pelagie-a-Madeleine-a-Pelagie-the-Cart.  Each has something to say about the ancestor whose name they bear.  Actually, a little more than something.  And of course the audience consists of descendants of other characters who have their own traditional two bits to toss in.

At first I didn't understand the style and found it difficult to read.  I persisted though, 'on account of because' it was such a captivating story.  Well before the half-way point though, I had caught on and really enjoyed being part of the group, often interjecting an exclamation of my own!

Read this book!  It is an absolute delight.  My heart is warmed toward L'Acadie and I can barely wait to go spend more time with her unique and beautiful people.  Merci'!

Five enthusiastic stars!


Booklogged said...

I'm anxious to read this after reading your review and listening to your praises of it as you read it. So glad we bought it. I think we also picked up a few Christmas ornaments for the kids in that gift store.

I can't wait to return to L'Acadie with you, listening to our maritime music as we go. Bliss!

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