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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Reviewer Lenz Takes on Translation of Marcel Pronovost Work

Title: Hearth and Home:The tumultuous life of Mathieu Rouillard and Jeanne
Guillet

Author: Marcel Pronovost.
Translated from the French by Eileen Reardon.
ISBN 978-1-926945-37-8
Baico Publishing Inc., 2011
Publisher's Web site: www.baico.ca
$25.00, 349 pages.
Genre: historical fiction

Reviewed by lenz, original for lenz.hubpages.com.

When Marcel Pronovost’s ancestor, Mathieu Rouillard, arrived in New
France in 1661 after a three-month Atlantic crossing, he did not see the
gold he had been told would be lying about on the ground, but he knew it
could be made by those with strength, intelligence, a will to work hard
and ambition. Mathieu had all of these qualities in abundance but he was
up against two mighty foes: the unforgiving North American wilderness
and the rapacious French colonial government with its systems of trade
and feudal seigneurial land grants.

Mathieu and his wife Jeanne were two among a large number of Mr.
Pronovost’s Trois Rivières, Quebec ancestors, whose lives and times he
has spent many years researching. Intending at first to write a brief
history to be distributed among his own family members, he found the
huge catalogue of historical data he had collected made that project
untenable and so decided to make it a novel in which he could condense
the subject of his family’s habitant ancestors into a dramatic tale of
one couple whose experience encompassed the best and worst that the new
world had to offer. Hearth and Home: The tumultuous life of Mathieu
Rouillard and Jeanne Guillet is the result and a lively, fact-filled,
fast-paced account it is.

Jeanne is the eldest daughter of a prosperous carpenter who at first
welcomes Mathieu, a strong reliable farmhand at the time, to the family
(Mathieu has left his own back in La Rochelle, France), but regrets it
later when he finds that the young suitor has told a small lie about
having property in France and will not provide the financial support for
his daughter he had hoped for. Indeed, Mathieu will never be rich, but
will be in debt to lenders for the rest of his life, his ambitions being
more than even his strong back can bear. The newlyweds love each other
passionately, but even Jeanne will become sad and embittered as the
years go on and she is left alone for months at times to care for
children and harvest crops, while her husband leaves “hearth and home”
to pursue his true vocation.

After clearing a strip of land on the Batiscan River, near Trois
Rivières, and building a small cabin for Jeanne and planting some wheat,
he turns to the business that has captured his imagination since his
arrival. He will be a coureur de bois or voyageur, traveling by canoe on
the rivers that lead to the north and west to trade with the aboriginal
peoples cheap merchandise for valuable beaver pelts. (Pronovost uses the
term “Savages” for the natives, as the colonists did.)

He loves the hard, adventurous life, but learns that the fur trade is
not always profitable -- rarely, in fact. Still, he keeps going on
longer and longer trips while owing more and more to the merchants who
have lent him the goods with which he trades. The payment he receives
for the furs he brings back never seem enough to cover the cost of those
goods.

Between his trading voyages and brief returns to the ever-affectionate
Jeanne, there are battles with the Iroquois and the English. It is the
Iroquois who, at first, are the principle enemy of the French. They are
a constant menace to both French settlers and other aboriginal nations.
Many forts are built and local men are called up to join militias which
are mostly successful at fighting off the raiders, but many lives are
lost on both sides. The English forces to the south only enter this
narrative late in the story when Mathieu and his friends are forced to
smuggle furs to the English forts, where they can get a higher price.
The politics and religion of the day are portrayed in all their greed
and hypocrisy, although we do see how Jesuit priests did their best to
keep the colonists from moral decay. The growing cynicism of the
colonists is also shown as they realise how powerless they are against
the same social forces that existed in the Old France that they left, in
hope of greater freedom.

When Mathieu is in his fifties and feeling his age, his desire to see
places further west takes him to the Mississippi River and a trip south
to warmer temperatures and fertile land, where he dreams of bringing his
wife and children to live more freely and comfortably. Here he sadly
meets his end.

Mathieu Rouillard, 1638-1702, holds the dubious distinction of (perhaps)
being the first white man to have died and been buried in what is now
the State of Louisiana and what was, in 1702, a swampy outpost of the
far reaches of New France. A tragic end to a truly tumultuous life.

This semi-fiction (most of the names are of persons living in that time)
takes us quickly through the years between 1660 and 1702 with energy,
passion and a lively style that engages one completely but raises, to my
mind, more questions than it answers about the lives and times of the
hardy and adventurous people of New France; the role of women, both
colonist and aboriginal, is distinctly missing in the scheme of things.

Illustrations from the National Archives of Canada, maps and lists of
names of aboriginal nations and historical characters are included.
Eileen Reardon provides a translation from the French that matches the
spirit of the original. I recommend this first novel as a charming and
intriguing introduction to the period.

~The reviewer, lenz, contributes occasionally to Hubpages (www.hubpages.com, World Literature Forum
(http://www.worldliteratureforum.com ) and other sites and is a volunteer proofreader at Distributed Proofreaders (www.pgdp.net ) as
xlenz.

 -----
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