Saturday, October 13, 2018

Jules Verne, Family Without a Name


Opening Passage:

"What a sorry sight the human race is," remarked the philosophers at the end of the eighteenth century, "cutting each other's throats for the sake of a few ice-covered acres of land." It was not their wisest observation, for they were referring to Canada, over which the British and French were then at war.

Although France was unable to maintain her hold on this splendid North American colony, its population, by and large, has remained as French as ever, despite treaties and boundary changes. (p. 13)

Summary: Simon Morgaz sold out his fellow patriots for a fortune and, when discovered, insisted on his innocence so vehemently that his wife and two young sons believed him. They went into hiding. But after his death they discover clear proof that the rumor was true. The two boys, Jean and Johann, and their mother, Bridget, repudiate the name of Morgaz. Jean and Johann each in their own way set out to make amends, Johann going into the priesthood and Jean into fighting for the independence of Quebec; but it is hard when your father has left you a debt that cannot be repaid and a stain that cannot be washed out. Jean becomes known as Jean Sans-Nom, Jean Without-Name, a freedom fighter feared by the British, public enemy number one, and the British will stop at nothing to hunt him down and execute them. Jean is clever, but it is only a matter of time before either he is unmasked as the son of the infamous traitor, thus losing the love and respect of those around him, or caught and put in front of a firing squad. Can anything other than self-sacrifice wash away the traitor's stain of blood?

Verne is not really recounting history. The early rebellion, and the Simon Morgaz who sold it out, are entirely fictional, as is, of course, Jean Sans-Nom and most of the characters in the story; Verne deliberately depicts Huron Indians fighting for the patriotes, despite the fact that they did not actually do so; several events from the real rebellion are so fictionalized as to be hardly recognizable. This is a work of storm and fire, buffoonery and melodrama, designed not to characterize the course of a rebellion but to depict, in fictional form, the hope that burns inside the fight for independence from an oppressive government. Verne wrote the book after the Franco-Prussian War, during which France had lost the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany, and there is a real sense in which this book about an entirely different continent is about that more than anything else. It is a call to the people of Alsace-Lorraine not to surrender and not to lose hope; the sacrifices may be great but freedom from the oppressor can be obtained.

Favorite Passage:

In all the St. Lawrence Valley, Thomas Harcher could not have found a better companion than his wife Catherine. She was forty-five years old, as sturdily built as her husband and, like him, still young in mind and body. Although her face and general appearance were rather plain, she was good-hearted and not afraid of hard work. In short, she was the mother of the family, as he was the father. They made a fine couple, so hale and hearty that they looked as if they could live to be a hundred, as many do in the wholesome Canadian climate.

There was perhaps one criticism that could be made of Catherine Harcher, but it applied equally to every woman in the country, public opinion to the contrary. The fact is, Canadian women are good housekeepers because their husbands do the housework: they make the beds, set the table, pluck the chickens, milk the cows, churn the butter, peel the potatoes, light the fire, wash the dishes, dress the children, polish the furniture, hang out the laundry. Catherine, however, did not carry this domineering attitude to the point of making her husband a slave, as many Canadian housewives do. Far from it! To do her justice, it must be acknowledged that she did her share of the daily work. Yet Thomas willingly did her bidding and indulged her whims. And what a fine family Catherine had given him -- twenty-six children, from their first-born, Pierre, the skipper of the Champlain, to the youngest, only a few weeks old, whose christening was shortly to be celebrated. (pp. 130-131)

Recommendation: Recommended.

Jules Verne, Family Without a Name, Edward Baxter, tr., NC Press Limited (Toronto: 1982).

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