Book review: “Quebec: Historic Seaport” by Mazo de la Roche

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Book review: “Quebec: Historic Seaport” by Mazo de la Roche

 

I was flabbergasted by Quebec: Historic Seaport, ostensibly a history of the Canadian city, published in 1944 by novelist Mazo de la Roche.  And my flabbergastation only grew greater the more I read the book until it evolved, near the end, into out-and-out disgust.

Of course, I knew going into the book that it might be a challenge.  Novelists use different intellectual and artistic muscles than historians do, but, sometimes, this can result in a wonderful work, such as Son of the Morning Star, Evan Connell’s history of Gen. George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn.

Not here.

De la Roche writes her book as if it were a historical romance with manly men and daintily beautiful women.  And it isn’t really about Quebec.  It’s more a history of Canada in which Quebec plays an important-ish role.

 

“Their own doom”

That’s not the real problem, though.  Ultimately, de la Roche’s effort is completely undercut by her deep and sharp prejudices.

This reaches its nadir when de la Roche is discussing the Treaty of Versailles which ended the American Revolution, giving the colonies their independence.  She writes:

In that treaty the New Englanders wrote their own doom, for in their ungoverned exuberance they opened the gates to all countries of Europe, which in time so overwhelmed them that they have become only a dim remnant of the Anglo-Saxon colonists.

In other words, the floods of Italians and Poles and Greeks and everyone else who were permitted to inundate the United States by its “ungoverned exuberance” had tainted the strong, clean, noble, pure Anglo-Saxon blood.

Holy crap!

What would de la Roche have to say about 2018’s America with its blacks and Hispanics and Asians and all the rest and all the intermarriage?  How tainted would this nation be in her eyes?

 

Echoing enemies

What’s particularly disturbing about this sentence is that it was totally unnecessary.  De la Roche wasn’t writing a book about the population stock of the United States.  Why even bring this up?

Also, Quebec was published in the midst of World War II.

Why would de la Roche echo the oppressive, racist, deadly beliefs of the leaders of the enemies of the Americans, particularly Adolf Hitler, at a moment when Canadians, Americans and many other Allied soldiers were fighting and dying for a freedom from such wrong-headed concerns about racial purity?

 

“Repulsive”

Even so, de la Roche’s sentence didn’t come as a complete surprise since her entire book is filled with prejudiced judgements in which the French and Catholics are always good, the Canadians always hearty, the English bad except when they’re good, and the Americans, particularly Protestants, always greedy and underhanded.

Worst of all, though, is de la Roche’s attitude toward Indians whom she describes on seemingly every page as cannibals with a sensational single-mindedness that greatly overstates the historic facts.  For her, they are sub-humans.  (Sound familiar?)

The Indians [were] repulsive to Montcalm in their bedizened nakedness.

Oh, that’s another thing.  Not only are the Indians cannibals, but they’re also always titillatingly naked, even, to some extent, in winter.

 

“Grinning in delight”

Consider this scene when canoes holding victorious warriors return to a village:

Their women, in a frenzy of eagerness to receive them, swam stark naked out to meet the canoes.  Grinning in delight, the warriors put the heads of the dead Iroquois into their outstretched arms.  The squaws swam back to shore and there played with the heads, held them aloft in a mad dance.

It is possible that de la Roche has some eyewitness account of this scene, but I doubt it.  Throughout Quebec, she appears to play fast and loose with facts.  Yet, even if a priest or a voyageur left an account of that moment, it’s highly unlikely to have been as culturally loaded as her three sentences are.

De la Roche pushes all the buttons of a white North American reader to achieve an emotional response that combines a feeling of superiority, a loathing and the tingling of taboo.

 

“Inky locks”

There’s a lot more:

  • “As the Indians tortured their enemies, so they devoured the vermin they found on their own bodies, taking what they considered just restitution on them.”
  • “They combed their inky locks with little combs.”
  • “This [dead captive] the Indians pounced on and tore to pieces. They forced gobbets of the bloody flesh into the mouths of the other prisoners.”
  • “[The Indians] retaliated, when they could, by killing and devouring stray Spaniards they might overcome in the mountains.”

 

Hear the bias for what it was?

Over the last fifty years, professional historians have written about the Indians with cultural sensitivity that is completely missing from de la Roche’s account.

Her bias is extraordinary for a reader today — and, I suspect, it also was for many readers when her book came out.

Yes, there was a strong sense in mid-century North America, in the public mind, at least, that whites had a right to take the continent from the natives because, by golly, we’d put it to good use.

But wouldn’t the reader in Montreal or the one in El Paso or the one in Nashville hear de la Roche’s bias for what it was?

Wouldn’t they hear Hitler in her words?

I do.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

9.5.18

 

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