CanLit Canon Review #4: Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine

In an attempt to make himself a better Canadian, Craig MacBride is reading and reviewing the books that shaped this country.

Maria Chapdelaine, written by Louis Hémon and translated from French by W. H. Blake, is the book we all should have read in high school instead of Pride and Prejudice.

While both novels deal primarily with young women who care a lot about getting married, Maria Chapdelaine is populated by the French Canadians who created Quebec, while Austen’s masterpiece is a portrait of tedious social climbers in England.

The tagline on the front of the book—“The classic novel of rural life in old Quebec”—is misleading; the book isn’t nearly as boring as that makes it sound. In fact, Maria Chapdelaine is one of the most fascinating novels this country has produced. Where else can one read three genuinely mesmerizing pages about clearing a field? And what’s better than the surprise appearance, in the last 10 pages, of a spirit voice ranting about how French Canadians must fight to preserve their culture in the face of English oppression?

“Strangers have surrounded us whom it is our pleasure to call foreigners; they have taken into their hands most of the rule, they have gathered to themselves much of the wealth; but in this land of Quebec nothing has changed. Nor shall anything change, for we are the pledge of it. Concerning ourselves and our destiny but one duty have we clearly understood: that we should hold fast—should endure. And we have held fast, so that it may be, many centuries hence the world will look upon us and say: These people are of a race that knows not how to perish…We are a testimony.”

Such a rant, and amidst a love story. Well, not even a love story. A marriage story. This is the most Canadian part: the protagonist, Maria, doesn’t get to marry the love of her life, Francois Paradis, because he freezes to death after getting lost in the woods in the winter. Instead, Maria has to choose between two lesser men, a local man who’s clearing the bush for a new farm nearby, or an American who promises all the luxuries of the great U.S. cities.

The novel is anti-Anglo, anti-American, anti-city and perfectly Canadian.

On top of that, there’s a tragic real-life story attached to the book. The author, Louis Hémon, was hit by a train and died six months before the work was first published as a serial in his native country of France. It wasn’t until several years after Hémon’s death that Maria Chapdelaine was published as a novel, and he became famous.