Monday, March 07, 2011

Histories of women of New France

Julie Wheelwright, a Canadian-born journalist based in London, began looking into her ancestor Esther Wheelwright, the seven year old child of devout New England Puritans who was captured by Abnaki raiders in 1703 and eventually delivered to New France., There Esther became -- despite entreaties by her parents to return home -- a nun and eventually mother superior of the Ursuline convent.

It's a story fairly well known to specialists in New France, I think, but the book called Esther that Julie Wheelwright made of her research sounds like the real deal.

Meanwhile Suzanne Desrochers, a Canadian doctoral student in Britain, has taken a different path, turning her research into 17th century women of New France into a novel of an imagined fille du roi named Laure Beausejour. The book is Bride of New France.

I suspect Julie Wheelwright may have chosen the better authorial strategy.  In an interview (podcast available from here), she was able to ponder what the situation of her ancestor might have been and what alternatives her culture and society and experience might have offered as she negotiated her way in the world.

A novelist, by comparison, is more-or-less trapped into creating one fixed reality and hoping we will suspend disbelief -- whereas it is all the potentialities and possibilities of past lives (as pondered by Julie Wheelwright)  that usually prove most interesting.  A novelist is also drawn almost inexorably into fictional tropes: Desrochers's Laure must be raised among prostitutes (okay, hardly impossible), she must fall in love with an Iroquois (not so much), and so on.

Hasten to underline: I haven't read either.
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