by Camille Bouchard
Québec Amérique, 2014
La Rochelle, 1684. Delphine Bréman, a widow, is living in poverty and has just lost her youngest son Armand to illness. Her surviving son, Eustache, is 12 years old and is the narrator of the story.
This narrative strategy requires the usual willing suspension of disbelief that a poor, illiterate 12-year-old boy has an extensive vocabulary and a way with words, but it is not without its advantages, notably allowing Eustache to overhear private conversations and providing opportunity for comedy. It also draws the reader’s attention away from De La Salle’s historical expedition and focuses it on the plight of the men, women, and children accompanying him.
In fact, much of the action is centred around Eustache’s love for 10-year-old Marie-Élisabeth, the daughter of the Talon family, who—like most of the characters—existed in real life.
“My heart races out of control. I feel dizzy all over. The feeling drowns my world in its pain and uncertainty. In an instant, I feel in control of my life and our destiny. I convince myself that never again will a shipwreck or an explorer or an Indian or a German freebooter—especially not him—endanger such intense hope and happiness.”
But as readers will have noted, the obstacles to this young love are many, all based around De La Salle’s expedition to Louisiana, which Marie-Élisabeth’s parents persuade Delphine to join them on. Three hundred set off with De La Salle on July 24, 1684, but the going is not easy. De La Salle aims to discover the Mississippi in the hope of it leading to China and India. Such a discovery would also ensure Louisiana would belong to the French and not the Spanish.
The story is divided into three parts: poverty in France, the hope of the crossing, and the desperate decline that sets in once the ships reach land.
In the hopeful chapters devoted to the crossing, the tone is generally light and full of wonder, with author Camille Bouchard presenting a new scene in each short chapter and exploiting the ironic distance between author, narrator, and 12-year-old Eustache.
A baby is born at sea. Sailors enthusiastically continue the tradition of “baptizing” those crossing the Equator (in this case, the Tropic of Cancer). There is great excitement as the settlers catch sight of a bison for the very first time. Eustache eats his first-ever birthday cake.
But a rivalry quickly lodges itself between De La Salle and Captain Beaujeu and the book takes a darker turn as the party reaches land. There are tense encounters with the First Nations. A man is hanged for deserting. Hiens, the German freebooter with wandering hands, repeatedly and distressingly rapes young Marie-Élisabeth, with the children powerless to speak up, let alone stop him. Bouchard deals with such an unpleasant plot development ably and admirably, barely alluding to any unpleasantness, while making Eustache’s struggle to get to grips with sex and sexuality, to become a man in a man’s world, clear for all to see.
“God, Papa, Armand, show me what to do! I am now a man and I don’t know what to do. And I thought that adults had an answer for everything.”
One hundred men return to France aboard the Joly, declaring the mission a failure. The rest of the expedition pushes on, however, with its “great sacred mission,” establishing Fort Saint-Louis:
“For days on end, through the mosquitos, snakes, and the constant danger of crocodiles, we walked around lakes, swamps, and marshland. The women and priests had trouble with their skirts, which snagged on the shrubs and bushes. Exhausted children found refuge on the shoulders of the strongest men.”
Then, in the fall of 1685, De La Salle sets off on the first of four expeditions to make sure they are in fact in the Mississippi delta. In his absence, decline well and truly sets in (with too many twists and turns in the plot to fully reveal here) as with every passing expedition his men are lost “like beads on a rosary.” The final third of the novel is full of thrills and spills as Camille Bouchard brings the recorded history of his characters to life, with no small degree of poetic license and a bloody end in store for many.
This is an action-packed young adult novel, weaving real historical events and heavy themes into the day-to-day concerns of a young boy between the ages of 12 and 16. It is written simply and well, posing some troubling questions along the way. Will God answer Eustache’s prayers or punish him for his actions? Will young love conquer all? Or will the men’s true nature be revealed and bring about their downfall?
Review by Peter McCambridge
Read an excerpt in translation here.