Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers

This is a fantastic first novel - a fictionalized account of the young orphan girls plucked from Paris's poorhouses in the 1600s and sent to be brides of soldiers and fur traders in New France.  Though fiction, it is clearly very well researched as it began as a Master's thesis about these filles du roi.

The book was recommended to me as a companion piece to Joseph Boyden's Orenda, and it really was interesting to read about this similar period in Canadian history from a different perspective.  The story is told from the perspective of Laure.  At six years old she was plucked from the arm's of her father, a street entertainer, and put into a poorhouse for orphan children while her parents were banished to the French countryside, never to be seen again.  She lived three pleasant years as a servant girl to an old woman who took a liking to her and taught her to embroider and read.  But when the woman died she was returned to the poorhouse, though because she was relatively educated she was placed with a group of girls who made lace for sale so were treated mildly better than other women.

At 17 Laure sends a note to the King complaining of the meagre rations in the poorhouse.  The letter is intercepted by the Superior of the poorhouse and as punishment Laure is banished to New France to become a bride for any poor settler who will have her.

We read about Laure's harrowing two month crossing on a sailing ship.  But on the ship we also see her strength of character and fiery spirit come to life when she is finally given a bit more freedom.  Once in New France she is sent beyond Quebec City to a small settlement where she is married off to a man who abandons her for most of the year to pursue his illegal trapping activities.  Laure's only real friend is a "savage", Deskaheh, who helps her survive her first winter.  However, relationships between French women and savage men are unheard of so she must keep the it secret.

Further tragedies strike Laure but in the end we are left with the feeling she is a survivor and will definitely go on the fulfil her duty to the French King in one way or another by helping to build his new colony.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Two Great Finds

It has been a while since I read two books in a row which I really enjoyed, but the following were both really good stories.  I read them very quickly because I was so intrigued by the plots.

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson
This is a first time novel by a Chicago trial attorney.  At times this shows in that the plot and dialogue are very straightforward and lacking in the symbolism weaved in by more experienced writers.  But this does not at all take away from the quality of the story.

The story centres on Ben, a Holocaust survivor in his 80s who believes that a prominent Chicago citizen, Elliot Rosenzweig, is in fact Otto Piatek, a Polish boy who was taken in by Ben's family as a child only to turn against them when he becomes a Nazi officer.  Ben publicly accuses Elliot and is initially charged though Elliot has the charges dropped, ostensibly because he feels sorry for the old man.  But Ben does not want to let the matter drop as he wants Otto to pay for what he did to his family.  So a private detective friend, Liam, introduces him to a young lawyer, Catherine, so she can represent Ben in a claim to recover property stolen by Otto during the war.

Catherine tries to get Ben to stick to the facts about what was stolen and how he is sure Elliot and Otto are one and the same but over time gets caught up in Ben's narrative about his childhood, his friendship with Otto, his wife Hannah and what happened to his family during the war.  Due to pressure from Elliot's lawyers to drop the claim, she is forced to leave her law firm and handle the case on her own.  And together Ben, Liam and Catherine work to prove their case.  The book switches from the present day to Ben's memories.  Both parts are fascinating and I was anxious to get to the end to see if the case could be proven and, if so, how.  I won't give away the ending as the book is worth the read to find out for yourself.

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
This book also deals with the lingering impact of war but a far different one.  A young man, whose name we never learn, moves from Ethiopia to Uganda in the 1970s to try to attend university in Kampala.  Instead he is slowly drawn into the African revolution by the only friend he makes, Isaac.  Isaac gives the protagonist a series of names, the professor, Langston, Ali and eventually his own name, Isaac.  The book alternates chapters between telling the story of the two young men in Africa and the fake Isaac's new life in the American midwest where a young woman, Helen, is assigned to be his social worker to integrate him into society but eventually falls in love with him despite knowing much of what he tells her is not the truth.

The story of how a poor, naive boy gets caught up in someone else's revolution is not unusual but it is written so well that I couldn't wait to see how he eventually became the Isaac in America on false pretences.  I also loved how we never actually learned his name - such a stark reminder of how you can lose your identity just when you have set out to find it.

Powerfully written without being at all preachy, this is a great story of the impact of colonialism and its aftermath.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Valley of Amazement

It has been several years since I last read an Amy Tan novel.  But, if my memory serves me correctly, I enjoyed her earlier work more than this book.

The book tells the story of Violet, a half American, half Chinese girl living in Shanghai at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Her mother, Lulu or Lucia, is the madam at a high end courtesan house in the city.  She runs it with her best friend, a Chinese former courtesan named Golden Dove.  Violet is a pampered girl who spies on the courtesans and their customers in between private lessons from a series of tutors.  But she is not completely happy as she craves attention from her mother and wants to know more about the father that abandoned them when she was an infant.  She learns, to her chagrin, that he was a Chinese painter who would not break from family tradition to marry the American girl he fell in love with and impregnated.

At 14 Lulu is swindled into travelling to America to reclaim the infant son that was taken from her by his father and Violet is sold to another courtesan house.  Her mother is then told she died.  Much of the book deals with Violet's life as a courtesan, her relationship with her attendant and surrogate mother, Magic Gourd and the various men in her life, including the man she marries and has a child with.  This child is taken from her when she is 3 1/2 after her American "husband" dies of influenza.  Over the years she develops more sympathy for her mother when she sees what happened to her from a mother's perspective - and she seeks her out and gets her help locating her daughter.

The mother-daughter relationships in this book are very interesting, as are some of the relationships with men.  I also liked the surrogate family relationships with Golden Dove, Magic Gourd and a gay American man who married Violet's mother and gave her legitimacy and an American passport.

But I also felt Tan tried too hard to fit too many stories into the book.  For example, Violet's second disastrous marriage to an abusive man who sets her up in his family's home in the countryside was at best a distraction.  I had trouble getting through that part.

All in all it was a good book but not a great one.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

I guess it's fitting I finished this book on the day it was selected as the winner of the CBC Canada Reads competition - and having read all but one of the other nominees, I am extremely supportive of this selection.  The book is absolutely fabulous.  Which is not to say it was easy to read - in fact, it was so violent at times I had to put it down just to take a break.  Unlike in movies, violence in books usually doesn't trouble me, but Boyden's descriptions are so powerful it's as if you're seeing the action on a screen.

The novel deals with the tensions between the Huron and the Iroquois prior to the formation of Canada - and the troubles that escalated when the French Jesuits, and their guns and diseases, were thrown into the mix.  Bird is a Huron warrior who has lost his wife and children to an Iroquois attack.  To exact revenge he kills the family of the young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, and adopts her as his own.  Her integration into the Tribe, and into Bird's life, is not easy, but by the end of the book the two characters genuinely love each other.  The story is written from both the perspective of Bird and Snow Falls.  While both are flawed, they are also incredibly strong and loving, especially in that they manage to overcome tremendous suffering.

The other narrator is the Jesuit Priest, Christophe, who the Huron refer to as the Crow (as they do other priests).  He is unrelenting in his efforts to convert the "sauvages" to Christianity and the novel clearly illustrates all of the devastation that was wreaked upon the First Nations with the arrival of the Europeans.  They introduce smallpox, TB and influenza, not to mention alcohol and guns, which nearly wipe out some of the Tribes.  In addition their views on child discipline are clearly the precursor to the residential schools - Christophe cannot understand how the Huron never discipline their children using corporal punishment or otherwise.  He has few successes in his conversions, but in the end works with the Huron to defend an Iroquois attack.

This book is a must read to understand the history of the formation of Canada.  Boyden's descriptive powers are unparalleled in my view, and while at times this can be uncomfortable, it's worth the discomfort to follow the fate of his fascinating characters.