EIGHTY-ONE YEARS after it first appeared on the eve of World War I and with over ten million copies sold, Louis Hémon Maria Chapdelaine is among the all-time French-language best-sellers. 1 A grim tale of life and death in the rugged Lake Saint John country, the novel initially met with a mixed recep- tion in Quebec and, over the years, has given rise to much controversy. 2 it can- not be gainsaid, however, that Hémon, a Frenchman who worked for a year as a farm hand at Péribonka shortly before meeting death in a railroad accident at the age of 33, succeeded in capturing the accents, the rhythm of work, and the mind-set of pioneers engaged in an enterprise that was doomed to failure. 3
The central character is clearly Maria, a sturdy and attractive young woman--15 years old when the story opens 4--who loses the man that she loves and is secretly planning to wed, the adventurous François Paradis, when he dies in a tragic winter accident. Maria then debates for a long time whether to favor an energetic and articulate emigrant to New England, Lorenzo Sur- prenant, who holds out the promise of a better life and dazzles her with the prospect of bright city lights: or marry her other suitor, Eutrope Gagnon, an earnest, steady, but unexciting neighbor.
Still entertaining doubts but on the verge of succumbing to Lorenzo's blan- dishments ("Pourquoi rester là [i.e., in Quebec]," she asks herself, "et tant peiner, et tant souffrir? . . . Pourquoi'? . . ." ). Maria, in the penultimate chapter, hears three mysterious voices as, lost in thought, she keeps vigil over the body of her mother who has died suddenly. The first voice reminds her of the beauty of each passing season in Quebec; the second recalls the sweet and familiar sounds of French; the third and most compelling voice, "la voix du pays de Québec," tells her where her duty lies: "Nous sommes venus il y a trois cents ans, et nous sommes restés . . ." (197). The faith, language, and...
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