Although almost everyone in Canada knows the story of les filles du roi and although I grew up very close to the border, I was either unfamiliar with Louis XIV's scheme to populate his New World colony or I had forgotten. When I heard that Suzanne DesRochers's Bride of New France was being published in the United States, put it on my must-read list.
When Laure Beauséjour was little girl, her parents were traveling street performers. They were working in Paris when, thanks to the city's poverty laws, she was taken by authorities to the poorhouse, and her mother and father were banished from the city.
Laure, luckier than most poor girls, was given a reprieve from La Salpêtrière to be a lady's maid. When her elderly mistress died, Laure was forced to returned to the poorhouse, but she was able to live in one of the better dormitories, owing to her excellent needlework skills. Laure dreamed of working in a Paris dress shop and marrying a gentleman; however, when her hopes for a better future get her in trouble, the nuns in charge of the poorhouse recommend her as a fille du roi (daughter of the king).
Although the bulk of Bride of New France takes place before Laure marries, Suzanne DesRochers wrote the novel to tell the story of les filles du roi, her area of academic expertise. In an author's note, she explains that these girls and their marriages have been romanticized and glorified over the centuries, and few Canadians understand what les filles endured.
[Les filles du roi were young girls, generally those with no prospects, who where shipped off in groups to New France. According to the La Société des Filles du roi et soldats du Carignan, 770 girls were sent to Canada from 1663 to 1673. As DesRochers notes, in return for their sacrifice, the girls were given a free trip across the ocean and a small dowry. The men who married a fille were given land, and bonus was paid to any couple who had 10 or more children. This was Louis XIV's plan for settling the colony.]
Laure is a fictional character who represents the more independent, headstrong girls who were sent across the Atlantic. While her life in Paris was no piece of cake—she worked long hours at sewing and was given just enough food to stay alive—at least she enjoyed a certain amount of shelter, not only from the elements but from the dangers of the city. Once in Canada, however, the French girls quickly realized how ill-prepared they were and found little protection in their new home: not from the brutish men looking for wives, not from the cold and mosquitoes, and not from the "savages" who lived in the woods.
Despite the fascinating details and DesRochers's obvious command of the topic, the novel was not a win for me. For all of Laure's hardships, some of which she brought on herself, it was difficult for me to feel much sympathy for her. I think she was supposed to be thought of as spunky and independent, but I found her to be selfish and standoffish. In addition, the secondary characters came off as types, including the pioneer midwife, the noble savage, the uncaring husband, the mean nun, and the pious friend.
I was drawn to Bride of New France because I wanted to learn about the girls who were sent by the king to be the mothers of a new country. Unfortunately for me, most of the novel takes place in Paris and during Laure's journey. We learn almost nothing about the girls she travels with or of what happened to them once they arrive in New France. As for Laure's fate, the first two years of her life in the north woods are condensed into the final chapters of the book, and we are left hanging. (Maybe there's to be a follow-up novel that I don't know about.)
Regardless, I'm glad I read DesRochers's novel because I now know quite a bit more about Paris in the 1660s and the nature of ocean voyages at the time. To be fair, I believe DesRochers's intention was to tell the story of the origin of the girls, not to tell us about their lives in Canada. I, on the other hand, was looking for a different type of novel, one that told about les filles du roi as they created their new life in a strange land.
I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio, 10 hr, 50 min) of the novel read by Emma Bering. My mixed review of her narration (excellent accent, some issues with the reading) will be published by AudioFile magazine.
Published by W. W. Norton, 2012
Source: Review (audio) (see review policy)
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