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Log Hauling by Suzor-Coté

The Relevance of Early Unsophisticated Fiction

These regionalistic forerunners are not masterpieces, but they are not to be dismissed or trivialized as they provide valuable insights into the life and times of their authors, times to which, as Northrop Frye writes, we cannot return historically, but can return psychologically:

“Quebec in particular has gone through an exhilarating and, for the most part, emancipating social revolution. Separatism is the reactionary side of this revolution: what it really aims at is a return to the introverted malaise in which it began, when Quebec’s motto was je me souviens and its symbols were those of the habitant rooted to his land with his mother church over his head, and all the rest of the blood-and-soil bit. One cannot go back to the past historically, but the squalid neo-fascism of the FLQ terrorists indicates that one can always do so psychologically.” (The Bush Garden, Preface, about ten paragraphs down)

Now, psychologically, a return to the past is often best achieved by reading the above-mentioned unsophisticated literary forerunners.  In fact, Frye also writes that “the question of Canadian identity, so far as it affects the creative imagination, is not a ‘Canadian’ question at all, but a regional question.”  (The Bush Garden, third paragraph).[i]So let us glimpse at French Canada’s first regionalistic novel, Patrice Lacombe’s Terre paternelle (The Ancestral Land). So let us glimpse at French Canada’s first regionalistic novel, Patrice Lacombe’s Terre paternelle (The Ancestral Land).

Patrice Lacombe’s Terre paternelle  (1846)

La Terre paternelle was first published, anonymously, in 1846 in L’Album littéraire et musical de la Revue canadienne, a periodical. In the 19th century, it was not uncommon to serialize a novel. Readers waited for the next issue of the journal.

In 1848, it was also included in James Huston’s (French entry) Répertoire national, a collection of works by French-speaking Canadian authors. But Patrice Lacombe’s Terre paternelle was not published as a book until 1871. It tells the story of Jean Chauvin and his family who live on their ancestral land, near Rivière-des-Prairies.

Summary of the Plot

One day, the younger of Jean Chauvin’s two sons, Charles, meets voyageurs in an inn. He hears them speak of the pays d’en haut, the countries “above,” and decides to seek employment with the Northwest Company as a voyageur. Charles ‘s father is disappointed and in order not to lose his older son, he lets him have the family farm in exchange for a pension or rente “viagère,” or “for life.” Jean Guérin’s oldest son is not interested in farming and Jean must return to his farm five years later.

In the meantime, however, Jean Chauvin, who has enjoyed a leisurely life for a few years, gets tired of farming, sells the farm and buys a business. He is so deprived of business acumen tht he loses everything. The family lives in abject poverty.

Fortunately, the second son returns from the “countries above” and is able to purchase the farm his father sold. So all is well that ends well. However, what we have seen is the Canadien‘s incompetence as a businessman, at a point in history when the Canadien had to leave the farm and move to the city, despite a lack of qualifications. Jean Chauvin’s failure as a businessman is humiliating, even if Lacombe presents cities as corrupt.


I will pause here but will post the continuation of this drama in my next blog. All the artwork featured in this blog is from artist Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté.



Sources and Resources

[i]  The Bush Garden Wikipedia Entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bush_Garden:_Essays_on_the_Canadian_Imagination
© Micheline Walker
3 June 2012