MARIA CHAPDELAINE: RECIT DU CANADA FRANCAIS (English translation, 1921) is, in part, autobiographical. Louis Hemon, born, reared, and educated in France, emigrated to the Canadian Lake St. John country in 1912. There he worked as a laborer for eight dollars a month on a farm near Peribonka, the village which is named in MARIA CHAPDELAINE and which forms part of the background of the novel. On a neighboring farm lived a young woman, Eva Bouchard, who became the heroine of Hemon’s novel. Maria Chapdelaine’s parents were modeled on Samuel Bedard and his wife, the owners of the farm on which Hemon was employed. The novel had astounding success during the early 1920’s, although the author, killed by a train shortly after posting the manuscript, did not live to see that success. As a result of the popularity of this novel, a search was made of Hemon’s manuscripts and four other volumes were published.
Reading MARIA CHAPDELAINE, one would assume that Hemon was a native of northern Quebec; surely only long familiarity with the weather, the land, the people, and their speech and customs could have prepared him for the moving descriptions in the novel and for his realistic portrayal of pioneer characters. Actually, however, he lived in the northern wilderness for only a few months, and his earlier articles and sports stories for French newspapers, written while he lived in England, scarcely seem predecessors of the novel that was to become a classic of French-Canadian literature. Perhaps it was because he was a foreigner with an observant eye, an ear for dialect, and a deep admiration for the simple folk of the Lake St. John country that he could write so convincingly.
As a longtime urban dweller, Hemon could well picture the sad disillusionment of the educated, city-bred Frenchman and his two sons who had fled the city with romantic anticipation of breathing the fresh air and enjoying the beauty of the great forests of the north. Hemon had learned that nature in this country could be harsh and deadly as well as kind and lovely. He had felt the bitter cold of the Canadian winter, he had suffered the bites of blackflies and mosquitoes in warm weather, and he had seen what drought can do to a farmer’s fields. He had learned also that to survive in the wilderness one need not be literate (many of the French-Canadians at that time could neither read nor write), but that one must be strong and tough.
Hemon’s knowledge of the people he was writing about and his sense of proportion kept him from descending into sentimentality in emotional scenes. He pictures the burden of grief that Maria bears after the death of Francois Paradis but then shows how she bravely puts this grief behind her and determines to accept the challenge of wilderness life with Eutrope Gagnon. When Mrs. Chapdelaine begins to suffer from her undiagnosed agony, the reader shudders inwardly, but Hemon makes no Dickensian effort to draw tears; he portrays briefly and simply the relief of the family as the wife and mother is finally released from her torture to attain the heavenly home that they are devoutly assured she has earned.