I love Canadian history and the more I learn, the more I realize that people coming to this country in whatever era they arrived need a few things to make this country their home: hope, determination, and joy. The first time I read Suzanne Desrochers novel Bride of New France, I couldn’t put it down. I was enthralled by the story of women being sent to Canada and how their lives changed once they arrived. I was interested in the relationships between the French and the First Nations and how they co-existed. I was in love with the story line of a sassy young woman out to find her way and not succumb to oppressive rule.
What started for Desrochers as a masters thesis turned into a novel exploring the lives of those who were at the mercy/planning of King XIV. Men who were in the military were given land in the colony and nearly forced to stay. Prisoners were banished to the New World in order to build settlements that were permanent. Men fought to get onto the supply ships heading back to France. The Coureurs de Bois and the official fur traders were at odds because only the official fur traders were technically allowed to trap and trade. The women had the worst life: forced into marriages to have babies to populate these new settlements. Often, as Desrochers writes, the women are left alone in cabins or huts while their husbands disappeared to hunt or spend time with their First Nation women and children.
The story of Laure Beausejour is a story that shows the powerlessness of many at this time in France, especially for women. Taken from her family at a young age, put into a school where she was on starvation rations and forced to sew, sent to a colony as a wife. Some of this sounds familiar to Canadians: children taken from homes and put into schools.
Yet as I read I couldn’t help but see Desrochers’ attempt to show the spirit of these new immigrants to Canada: courage, determination, hope, and even joy. Although Laure is married off to a man she calls a pig and a dog, she finds freedom: freedom to wander, freedom to move about. Freedom to make new friends and explore life. Finally after years of imprisonment in a hospital because she was from a low social class, she is free to make some of her own decisions. In the end, she befriends a strong, independent woman and we are left with the hope that her possibilities are endless. It’s the ultimate Canadian dream, full of hope and independence.
Canada’s history is full of governments (French or British) trying to get people to stay and live on the land (that was already being used by First Nations people). For hundreds of years, governments have been taking over land and pushing people around all in an attempt to claim the land and eventually to keep away the Americans. Women were a major part of that initiative: without women, settlements don’t grow. So Canada’s past is not as bright as Desrochers wants to paint it for us, but I do believe that she caught on to the joy and hope that many felt by being in this beautiful land and the freedom that it brought, for men and for women.
“So far Laure’s circumstances have been more comfortable in the colony. It is the first time she has had her own room…This is the first garden Laure has been in. In Paris, only wealthy women like the Superior at the Salpetriere had gardens.” (Desrochers, Pg 176)
“On some levels [Laure] is a selfish character, but how else in such circumstances, if not through wit and strength and even malice, could these women have survived and given birth to French North America?” (Desrochers, Pg 292)