As a girl, Laure is torn from her street-performer father's arms by Louis XIV's officials, an episode which gains her immediate sympathy points. The next scene, set some years later, shows her distrust of another person's obvious suffering and steals those points right back from her. Desrochers illuminates both sides of Laure’s character throughout the book, making readers wary but fascinated observers of her fate.
Growing up in the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, a notorious home for destitute, criminal, insane, and loose women, Laure is fortunate to find herself in the Sainte-Claire dormitory, where she and other "bijoux" (jewels) are trained in lace-making. After she makes the mistake of complaining to the king about their poor conditions and bad food, her dreams of becoming a seamstress to the nobility are dashed. She is told she’ll be one of 100 orphans and widows sent to New France in Canada to marry a colonist, become his helpmate, and bear French children for the realm. What she feels about this is unimportant.
Laure’s tale is spliced into three segments, organized in essence as follows: Paris and the traumatic ocean voyage to Québec; her journey to the primitive town of Ville-Marie, “the last settlement before forest completely takes over”; and her marriage to an ill-mannered coureur de bois who leaves her behind in their cabin during a rough winter with only a pig for company. While the novel isn’t quite 300 pages long, Laure's constantly changing experiences give it almost the feel of an epic.
Unlike at the Salpêtrière, Laure isn’t a prisoner in her new home, but as midwife/innkeeper Madame Rouillard tells her, “The price we pay for freedom is that we have to live here.” This beautifully described country, ruled by the fur trade and the seasons, abounds with wildlife, and members of the Algonquin and Iroquois tribes both support and threaten the colonists. Laure had already attracted unwanted attention by her unorthodox behavior aboard ship, which didn't endear her to the other women. (Given what happens to those closest to her, the distance they keep from one another is probably to their benefit.) Her friendship and more with an Iroquois man who helps her survive makes her even more of an outcast. She is strong-minded, though, even in her impracticality. She insists on embroidering elegant Parisian-style dresses even after being told how useless they are in New France.
Although it may not be the best choice for those who need to emotionally connect with their protagonists, Bride of New France reveals an important chapter in the history of North America, especially from the female viewpoint, and is full of absorbing social history. It’s easy to see why it became a Canadian bestseller. The ramshackle town of Ville-Marie would later become known as Montréal, and the stories of its earliest pioneers are worth knowing. The conclusion demands a sequel, and fortunately, per Publishers Marketplace, one is in the works.
Bride of New France was published by Norton in the US in August at $24.95 (hardcover, 293pp, including author's note). Penguin Canada reprinted it in trade paperback at $16.00 Canadian in January.
A contest in honor of my 700th post! I had already bought the Canadian edition when an ARC arrived unsolicited from Norton, so I have an extra copy up for grabs. If you'd like this practically new ARC to be yours, leave a comment on this post for a chance to win it. Open internationally; deadline Friday, September 7th.