Desrochers’ debut follows a spirited young woman from a grim charity hospital in 17th-century Paris to the equally challenging Canadian wilderness.
Snatched from her parents by a law that forbids begging on the city streets, the best Laure Beauséjour can hope for as an inmate of Salpêtrière Hospital is that her nimble fingers will get her a job with a seamstress, where she can assess single men for their marriageability. She has no interest in the cloistered life, unlike her pious friend Madeleine, who aspires only to become one of the nuns who oversee the hospital’s indigent women with varying degrees of severity. But when Laure’s ill-judged letter to the king complaining of their treatment results in her being sent to Canada, she persuades Madeleine to join her in the contingent of unruly women destined to atone for their sins by marrying settlers and providing population for New France. The improbable scene in which Madeleine decides to cast her lot with Laure is only one instance of the awkward tone and sketchy motivations that indicate a beginning novelist throughout this oddly conceived and structured narrative. With nearly half the text devoted to Laure’s experiences in Paris and the voyage to the New World, the author fails to provide sufficient time and emotional weight for the ordeal in the Canadian wilderness, where the protagonist reluctantly marries an odious fur trader but finds herself drawn to one of the natives the French scornfully call Savages. Desrochers, who drew her fictional inspiration from her research for a masters’ thesis at York University on the subject of female immigration, certainly conveys the bleak conditions endured by French settlers, particularly in the stark depiction of Laure facing starvation during her first Canadian winter. But she fails to bring to life any of the characters other than willful Laure, and her self-absorbed heroine is hard to like.
Vivid historical background wasted on unengaging fiction.