In the Shadow of the Wind
In the Shadow of the Wind is the English-language version of Les Fous de Bassan, published in France in 1982, which won for Anne Hébert the prestigious Prix Femina in Paris in 1982. The French title refers to several varieties of seabirds, including the gannet, booby, and Sollan goose; the translation chosen by Sheila Fischman, “gannet,” is the best within the context of the geographical range of Hébert’s novel. The gannet is a bird renowned for its dramatic plunges from great heights into the sea in search of its prey; the gannets of the novel are the brutal and predatory men who people its pages, and the internal furies that pursue Stevens Brown into madness, eventually providing the last image unlocking the story of his crime. The wind is another major motif in the novel, permeating the world of Griffin Creek with its salt breath, both male and female, and consorting with the sea in storms. Stevens identifies his father with a storm wind rushing down on him; he hears the same wind himself in a murderous rage. The voices of the dead women of Griffin Creek also speak in the wind, and Olivia of the High Sea follows the wind through the very walls of her father’s house to reinhabit the living form of Olivia Atkins. The wind’s shadow is an insubstantial proposition compared to the concrete forms of gannets: Both serve their turn creditably as titles for a novel set on the Gaspé Peninsula, junction between land and sea, a difficult land drawing subsistence from the sea that batters it.
Griffin Creek’s first settlers inhabit the land as exiles from paradise, Loyalist émigrés from the American Revolution in 1782. Their spiritual father is the mad king George III, and they cling to their religion and language in isolation from the French-speaking Catholics of the Province of Quebec. Seemingly precise in a geographical setting, Griffin Creek is rather the Pascalian point between two infinities, a microcosm for Quebec in its stubborn linguistic and cultural isolation, a macrocosm for the individual human being sundered from his fellows by petrifaction in old patterns.
The static entity of Griffin Creek, preserved through generations of an intermarried extended family, is shattered by the events of the summer of 1936, the sexual flowering of two young cousins, Nora and Olivia Atkins, whose fathers are brothers and their mothers sisters, and their brutal murder. These events are presented through the words of multiple narrators set out individually in blocks: “The Book of the Reverend Nicholas Jones. Autumn 1982,” “Letters from Stevens Brown to Michael Hotchkiss. Summer 1936,” “The Book of Nora Atkins. Summer 1936,” “The Book of Percival Brown and Several Others. Summer 1936,” “Olivia of the High Sea (no date),” and “Last Letter of Stevens Brown to Michael Hotchkiss. Autumn 1982.” The collective voice of the people of Griffin Creek joins the five named narrators, and there is also an impersonalized narrative voice heard at various points in the book. The reflective voices of the first and last “books,” set in the autumn of 1982, frame the three immediate narratives of 1936, along with the temporally floating “Olivia of the High Sea.” The letters of Stevens Brown are presented as written, while the other “books” represent inner voices; Stevens’ letters are dated, while the other narrators are free within their frames of temporal reference. Certain key events reappear in the words of two or more witnesses, but the actual murder of Nora and Olivia is recounted only in a single book, although the events leading up to the very moment of that crime are presented in multiple voices.
In Les Enfants du sabbat (1975; Children of the Black Sabbath, 1977), Hébert framed the voices of her characters with phrases of Latin drawn from the Catholic Liturgy. In the Shadow of the Wind is similarly permeated by biblical phrases and imagery, especially “The Book of the Reverend Nicholas Jones.” Where the French Canadians of the earlier novel, also set in the Province of Quebec in the 1930’s, take the Mass as their religious frame of reference, the English-speaking Protestants of Griffin Creek refer to the Bible. In both novels, however, the religious text clothes a system of authority where one voice, a man’s voice, rules. In Children of the Black Sabbath, two liturgies, sacred and profane, are ruled respectively by the pope and by the satanic father. In Griffin Creek, it is Nicholas Jones, final master of the church and the Word of Griffin Creek, who uses the Divine Word and his beautiful voice to rule.
Even as the biblical world is divided into opposites, light separated from darkness, earth from sea, woman from man, so is the fictional community divided into cold, quiescent women and predatory men, hunters and fishermen, whose victims include their own wives and children. The children alone seem warm and living, and it is the children who are destroyed in the summer of 1936.
The prototypal pair of Griffin Creek are Felicity and Peter Jones. The male character is not fully explored by Hébert, but Peter, in outline, defines the sphere of male action. In his youth, Peter was a hard-drinking philanderer, father of many children in and out of wedlock. Felicity accepts the weight of this abuse and her many pregnancies, preserving an inner solitude manifested in her predawn escapes to the sea, an escape forbidden to her small son Nicholas but shared with her granddaughters, Nora and Olivia. As an old man, Peter is seen by Stevens as coexistent with the fir tree against which he leans, a sturdy trunk with many branches. Felicity is a dolphin, a force of nature allied to the sea. Nicholas longs for the love of his cold mother, tries to reach her heart as a preacher, longs for a son to win her heart, but can rival his fertile father only by creation of ancestors, a sort of fatherhood in reverse. The daughters of Felicity and Peter Jones are the mothers of the main protagonists of the novel.
Griffin Creek possesses no sexless creatures; its air is full of the scents of male and female in perpetual agitation. The girls of Griffin Creek are conventionally chaste until marriage, afterward they are transformed into mothers, perpetually bearing wanted and unwanted children, until liberated by age or death. Nicholas Jones sets the tone of erotic tension for the summer of 1936; in his lust for his nieces, he preaches Scripture for seduction, but the desire he awakens with his powerful voice is focused not on himself but on Stevens, who preoccupies the Atkins girls and refeminizes the androgynous widow Maureen, lying with her on his first day of return to the village. Maureen’s erotic reflowering is extended even to her dooryard garden and dies like it with the first frosts of autumn.
The town celebrates the early summer hay harvest by a barn dance which serves to release some of the pent-up sexual energy of the community: Here, all the men and women touch in the figures of the dance. Stevens’ masculine image is indelibly printed on his cousins, while Nicholas hovers so explicitly over the Atkins girls that Percival Brown screams out in fear. Only the pastor’s barren wife, Irene, does not join in the dance. Inevitably, the erotic tensions of that night lead to Nicholas’ advances on Nora and his wife’s suicide as well as to the closer weaving of the fates of the three young cousins.
Among the pairings of male and female, most follow the pattern of abusive man and passively cold or victimized woman. John and Bea Brown, parents of Stevens, Percival, Pat, and Pam, are the physical extreme of this pattern—Bea so cold from poor circulation that it is a marvel her unwanted children emerged alive from her womb, John a brute who beats his sons with her consent. Olivia’s father demands the total servitude of his wife and daughter. His wife, loving in life, is guilty of abandoning her daughter through death, binding her with deathbed promises to the prison of domestic service. Nicholas Jones is the master of psychological abuse; using his wife as housekeeper and vessel for propagation, he turns from her when she proves fruitless. Her suicide is a deliberate answer to his attempt on Nora, the ultimate devaluation of Irene’s role in his life. Irene is thus the first victim of 1936, and although her character is only lightly penciled in, her role is significant because she broadens the perspective. Were Nora and Olivia the only ones to die, their murder could be an isolated incident. Irene’s suicide is a foreshadowing and generalizing element.
Irene’s housekeeping functions and place as victim are filled after her death by the twins Pat and Pam Brown. Confined to the parsonage throughout their lives, they are children ruled by Nicholas’ voice; they are obedient and fearful until they disobey, awakening the memories of 1936 in the autumn of 1982. In this year, as a celebration of the settlement’s bicentennial, and as a self-validation, Nicholas plans an exhibit of his ancestors; he creates portraits of the male ancestors of Griffin Creek in his image, then invites the...
(The entire section is 3738 words.)