The fame of Louis Hémon (ay-mawn) is based almost entirely on one novel, Maria Chapdelaine, although some of his earlier work was published as a result of the attention he received after the reprinting of the novel in 1921. In France, he is valued chiefly as a stylist, but in Canada he is regarded as the first great voice of a national literature. The Canadian government has even renamed localities in his honor: There is now a Lake Hémon and a Lake Chapdelaine.
The man who captured the spirit of pioneering Canada actually lived less than two years in that country. Born in France, the son of the inspector-general of the University of Brest, Hémon was educated at the University of Paris, where he studied Asian languages to prepare himself for colonial service. In 1903, however, he went to England, where he worked as a clerk in London and married. While in England, he wrote numerous articles and stories on sports for French newspapers and magazines. In 1911, after the death of his wife, he immigrated to Canada and took a job as translator in Montreal.
In 1912, he became a farm laborer for eight dollars a month in the village of Peribonka, near Lake St. John, in northern Quebec. He admired his employer, Samuel Bedard, and the Bedard family and later modeled Samuel and Maria Chapdelaine on Samuel Bedard and his sister-in-law, Eva Bouchard. After six months’ labor devoted to clearing land, Hémon left the Bedards and wrote Maria Chapdelaine. He mailed his manuscript to Le Temps, a Parisian newspaper, and immediately set out on a walking tour of the west in search of new material. He was walking on the railroad tracks near the little town of Chapleau, Ontario, when he was struck and killed by a train on July 8, 1913.
Maria Chapdelaine attracted little attention when it appeared serially in Le Temps in January and February of 1914. In 1916, it was published in Montreal in book form, but only in a limited edition, but a Paris edition of 1921 sold more than four hundred thousand copies and marked the upsurge of interest in this polished chronicler of early twentieth century pioneer life. Hémon continues to be admired for his fresh perception of pioneer character and a severity of style that never allowed his love for the land and for simple characters to degenerate into sentimentality.