Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833
Jean Pierre Bellefleur, banished from his native France and cast out by his father, a duke, settles in the Lake Noir region of the United States in the mid-1700’s and becomes a powerful force in the area. Notorious for his drinking, gambling, and shady business deals, Jean Pierre is impeached from Congress during his second term for scandal and corruption. When his wife, Hilda, flees his house, to the neighbors’ horror, he brings an Onondagan Indian woman, Antoinette, to live with him.
His son Louis marries Germaine O’Hagan, a local woman, and has three children with her. Louis’s family lives with Jean Pierre, and Louis participates in the family businesses with a disregard for the law that equals that of his father.
Jedediah Bellefleur, the less business-minded son, goes off to live in the nearby mountains to prove to himself that he can survive there for a year. The years begin to multiply, and Jedediah does not return. He becomes a hermit, religiously zealous, suspicious of the occasional trappers and hunters he encounters on the mountain, and paranoid that his family will have him forcibly removed back to their home. His mission is to see the face of God.
After nineteen years on the mountain, Jedediah is persuaded to return to his family home; Jean Pierre, Louis, Antoinette, and Louis’s children were brutally murdered by vengeful neighbors. Only Germaine survived the midnight raid on the family home. In order to keep the family name alive, Jedediah marries Germaine and they have three children, including Raphael, who dedicates himself to building the family fame and fortune.
In addition to running for governor and losing three times, helping to found the Republican Party in the area, and creating a hops empire from nothing, Raphael builds Bellefleur Manor, a mammoth, Gothic castle that dominates the landscape in the Lake Noir region. There Raphael entertains numerous politicians, including senators, Supreme Court justices, a vice president, and dignitaries from overseas. He claims that he offered refuge to Abraham Lincoln at the manor when Lincoln, depressed and anxiety-ridden, according to Raphael, hired an actor and staged his own murder. Raphael is best known for having a provision in his will that he be skinned upon his death. He orders that the skin be stretched over a Civil War cavalry drum, that the drum forever reside in the Great Hall of Bellefleur Manor, and that it be “sounded each day to announce meals, the arrival of guests, and other special events.” The drum mainly is used by the Bellefleur children to scare each other and unsuspecting friends.
Subsequent generations of Bellefleurs are punctuated by such members of the family as Jean Pierre II, who is convicted of murdering eleven people in an area tavern; Hiram, an irrepressible sleepwalker; and Vernon, a poet; but most prominent are Gideon and Leah Bellefleur, who live in the twentieth century.
Gideon and Leah are first cousins who marry and have three children. They are beautiful, powerful, and extreme. Anything Gideon drives—a car, a horse, a plane—he drives fast. He races for high stakes and always wins. Leah takes in and tames strays: a large, ferocious cat; a child; a baby that she forcibly removes from its own mother’s care; a dwarf. Her children believe she has the power of foresight. After a lengthy and inactive pregnancy with her third child, she sets about to restore the Bellefleur fortune, which is a bit depleted, to its previous glory. For luck and inspiration in her business deals, Leah brings along her daughter Germaine, whom she believes has power of her own. Germaine is a quiet, precocious child who had been born with an extra torso and set of legs growing from her abdomen. These had been promptly cut off by her grandmother, but Germaine is characterized by a sadness that may have resulted from a sense of loss over the part of herself that was removed or may have resulted from the burden of knowing ahead of time what will happen to family members.
As Leah pursues her business interests and is away from home frequently, her relationship with Gideon, which once had been as passionate as all other aspects of their lives, begins to sour. He has numerous affairs with tawdry, uneducated women, the antitheses of Leah, and eventually becomes obsessed with flying planes. Leah has a number of affairs of her own, which she uses as a means to get business accomplished. They only bother to fight over the affections of Germaine, each claiming to be a more devoted parent to her than the other.
In an act that nullifies not only the accumulating successes of Leah’s business ventures but also Bellefleur Manor and all but a few members of the family, Gideon crashes a plane loaded with explosives into the manor. Only Germaine, whom Gideon safely deposited with a distant aunt, and the Bellefleurs, who long since fled the manor and never returned, are spared.
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