Academic journal article Quebec Studies

Performances of Franco-American Identity in Mirbah: A Portrait of Precious Blood Parish

Academic journal article Quebec Studies

Performances of Franco-American Identity in Mirbah: A Portrait of Precious Blood Parish

Article excerpt

Nous avons ete eleves en Nouvelle Angleterre, ou l'idee de survivance est aussi naturelle a l'esprit et au coeur que le retour des saisons (1).

--Maximilienne Tetrault

The emigration of a largely agrarian population of unskilled laborers from Quebec province to the six New England states began in earnest during the decades preceding the American Civil War. By 1910, more than a million French-Canadians and their descendants lived and worked in the United States, chiefly in the Northeast, and a well-established French-language press served them. (1) Journalists such as Jean-Georges LeBoutillier (editor-in-chief of L'Opinion Publique in Worcester, Massachusetts, from 1907 to 1911) took up their pens to advocate tirelessly for the maintenance of the French language, Roman Catholicism, anda distinctly French-Canadian cultural heritage in the mill towns of New England. (2) However, even as LeBoutillier rallied his readership around the cause of cultural survival, la survivance, he questioned its viability. Writing in the preface to Alexandre Belisle's 1911 Histoire de la Presse Franco-Americaine et des Canadiens-Francais aux Etats-Unis, LeBoutillier asks, "Notre population a-t-elle conserve [...] son caractere et ses traditions francaises? [...]. C'est bien penible a constater, mais on ne peut s'empecher de reconnaitre que la nationalite a fait et fait encore constamment des pertes lamentables" (np). Over the next fifty years, dozens of Franco-American writers would, like LeBoutillier, forge ahead regardless of their pessimism and would defend the tenets of la survivance in serialized novels appearing in French-language newspapers across New England. (3)

Getting beyond the fire: a new reading of Mirbah

At that moment in 1911, Emma Dumas was in the midst of publishing her 247-page semi-historical text Mirbah, a chronicle of the spiritual questing of fictional characters intertwined with the collective history of Precious Blood parish in Holyoke, Massachusetts. From a literary standpoint, Mirbah cannot be considered a sophisticated text: an improbable plot, stereotyped characters, and the didactic intent of the author all contribute to the narrative's lack of verisimilitude. However, in privileging an unambiguous code of conduct and a single system of beliefs in order to influence the attitudes and behaviors of her readership, Dumas is not unlike certain American novelists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe or Charles Brockden Brown whom Jane Tompkins describes as having "designs upon their audiences, in the sense of wanting to make people think and act in a particular way" (xi). Tompkins argues that the ideological novels that these authors produced, although flawed and aesthetically deficient, offer modern readers insights into the way a culture thinks about itself. Mirbah, quite arguably an ideological novel, presents its readership with a singular script for survival--in this case, the survival of Roman Catholicism--in Yankee Pioneer Valley. In so doing, Dumas also furnishes modern readers with a unique glimpse of the cultural practices--both secular and sacred--of Holyoke's French Wards 1 and 2 in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Historian Jacques Ferland characterizes this struggle to survive as not only the concern of a clerico-conservative elite, but also as the goal of a grassroots movement. He recognizes the contributions of ordinary workingclass Franco-Americans and their efforts to protect a distinct cultural heritage in the face of assimilationist pressure and the palpable Ku Klux Klan threat against French-speaking Catholics in New England.

Emma Dumas, by no stretch of the imagination a member of Holyoke's elite, was a humble worker in the cause of cultural survival. Her self-deprecating nature is apparent early in the text when her narrator's writing ability is challenged by a somewhat snappish character who serves as a critic of the unfolding narrative and seeks to derail its publication: "Quoi! …

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