CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 3 . . . . September 29, 2006
The story of The Conquest of Canada is about the early years of French activity in present day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec. It portrays very realistically the problems the settlers faced, from the lack of supplies from France and occasional attacks by the Iroquois to the constant struggle to stay alive in the new world. It also shows the utter hopelessness of the missionaries' attempts to convert the natives to Christianity.
The author Wendel Messer, who previously wrote the highly acclaimed Sink: The Last Days of Driving, got his inspiration for his new book from Fortune & La Tour: The Civil War in Acadia, by M.A. MacDonald, published in 1983. Messer takes this story, and much more, and makes it come alive. The reader is transported back in time and becomes an eyewitness to this wonderful period in Canadian history. The Conquest of Canada is hard to put down and, judging the story by what history books tell us of the age of discovery, very accurate. Messer has a vivid imagination. His style is colourful and engaging as in the following example: “At the shock of the heat, the dead men sat up or rolled over, as if practicing for the inferno. A Turk and two Frenchmen rose upright and walked together with arms flailing and jaws wide open.” Messer's book will appeal to anyone with an interest in history and to those who just like a good story.
Much of the book deals with the search for "the relic of Eu," a fragment of bone from the body of Lawrence O' Toole, the patron saint of the Jesuit order who died in Normandy. The relic was supposed to work miracles, and, therefore, finding it became an obsession of the Jesuits. Keeping its location secret was also an obsession of the Recollets, a Franciscan order sent to New France to convert the natives to Christianity. They feared, quite rightly as it turned out, that their failure to win any converts would result in the much more zealous Jesuits being sent to replace them.
The Jesuits had a greater impact on early Canada than the Recollets. Their rivalry is an interesting element of The Conquest. The former, with the support of powerful people in France, such as Cardinal Richelieu, eventually supplanted the Recollets. The reward for some of them, including Jean Brébeuf, who has a brief part in The Conquest, was torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois.
An interesting aspect of the story deals with the superstitious nature of Catholic theology at this time. A number of the characters in the story have dreams, which are interpreted according to the dreamers' understanding of Catholic theology. This theology is always considered superior to that of the natives, which is believed to be witchcraft and the work of the devil. In fact, because of the French inability to convert natives, North America is considered to be "Beelzabub's domain." However, in The Conquest of Canada there is little to distinguish between French and native spirituality, hence the unwillingness of the natives to give up their beliefs for those of the French.
There are two maps in the book, one of Acadia (Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) and one of North America from present day Quebec City to Lake Superior. They show the tribal lands of the native nations mentioned in the story as well as the routes of journeys taken by Champlain and others. They are useful, allowing the reader to grasp the magnitude of the effort required to cover great distances in seventeenth century North America. A few illustrations, such as the painting of Champlain taking leave of Brulé on Lake Simcoe 1615, as shown on Messer's web site, would also have been welcomed.
Thomas F. Chambers, who lives in North Bay, ON, is a retired college teacher.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.