Quebec Studies

Performances of Franco-American identity in Mirbah: A portrait of Precious Blood parish

Quebec Studies (2010), 49, (1), 145–162.

Abstract

145 Performances of Franco-American identity in Mirbah: A portrait of Precious Blood parish Cynthia Lees University of Delaware Nous avons été élevés en Nouvelle Angleterre, où l'idée de survivance est aussi naturelle à l'esprit et au cœur que le retour des saisons (1). - Maximilienne Tétrault The emigration of a largely agrarian population of unskilled laborers from Québec 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 (editorin-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, and a 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-Américaine et des Canadiens-Français aux Etats-Unis, LeBoutillier asks, "Notre population a-t-elle conservé [...] son caractère et ses traditions françaises? [...]. C'est bien pénible à con­ stater, mais on ne peut s'empêcher de reconnaître que la nationalité 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 can­ not be considered a sophisticated text: an improbable plot, stereotyped characters, and the didactic intent of the author all contribute to the narra­ tive'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). Québec Studies, Volume 49, Spring/Summer 2010

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Lees, Cynthia