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Bélonie, first of the line of Bélonies to come through the Great Disruption, was a patched and peeled old codger when the ox cart rattled off on its way. And for the youngsters who clambered aboard, he would unravel the legend of the Wagon of Death. [….] for no man living had ever seen that sombre contraption with neither doors nor lamps, drawn throughout the world by six spanking black horses since the beginning of time.” – Pélagie: The Return to Acadie, Antonine Maillet

grand-pre-1873042_1920Initial thoughts: I was assigned this novel for a course on Maritime fiction. For those who do not know, the Maritimes are a group of three Canadian provinces on the Atlantic coast of Canada. The three provinces are: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island (often shortened to P.E.I). Before you begin thinking to yourself “I haven’t read or heard of any books from the Maritimes,” think again. You are probably familiar with Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous novel Anne of Green Gables. Yes, Anne of Green Gables is a work of Maritime fiction known widely throughout the world. Pélagie: The Return to Acadie by: Antonine Maillet is a lesser known Maritime novel in comparison to Anne of Green Gables. Hopefully, after reading this review, you will be tempted into discovering this wonderful novel!

Plot Summary:

Twenty years after her people were deported to the state of Georgia (The United States), Pélagie Leblanc assembles a cart pulled by oxen to lead her people back to the land of their forefathers, the land of Acadie. But, their journey will not be an easy one. Tested by the elements and perilous adventures, Pélagie and her people will have to decide… is Acadie a place worth returning to?

The Review

Prior to 1755, the Maritimes were once known as La Nouvelle France (New France) or Acadie. The numerous French immigrants who migrated from France to the three Maritime provinces are known as Acadians. After over one hundred years of their colonization of Acadie, beginning in 1755, the English colonists decided to deport the Acadians. Some Acadians were able to escape deportation and hid until the deportation was over. Some were not so lucky. Some of the Acadians were sent back to France, and others were deposited here and there along the eastern coast of the United States. Those who ended up in Louisiana began to call themselves Cajuns.

Pélagie: The Return to Acadie is the story of a group of resilient Acadians who were deported to the United States who seek to return home. The story is narrated in a tone which is designed to invoke and mimic oral narration. The style of narration is absolutely crucial to the storyline as it demonstrates the richness of Acadian storytelling. Antonine Maillet, the author of Pélagie: The Return to Acadie, has greatly studied oral storytelling. Maillet also has a PhD in literature and taught folklore at numerous universities in Canada and the United States. This knowledge of storytelling allows for a seamless blending of an oral tradition within a written text.

As the story is told in an oral format, the narrators are essential pieces to the story as are the main characters. The narrators are the descendants of the characters of the story. It becomes evident throughout the story that there are alterations and changes to the storyline as it is adapted and retold throughout the generations. One of the flexibilities which an oral tradition provides is its ability to adapt and change throughout the years. When a story has been retold time and time again, it takes on the status of legend. Pélagie: The Return to Acadie exhibits the same traits. Although the story is grounded in a historical narrative, there are mythic storylines and characters which changes this story from history to legend.

I have to admit, when I first read the first two pages, I was confused. I was extremely unfamiliar with the structure, and I ended up getting the characters confused. Unfortunately, the narrators have the same or similar names to the characters in the story. I can imagine that there would be people who would pick up this novel out of curiosity only to put it down again due to being extremely confused at the start of this novel. As for me, I didn’t have that option. In order to write essays and get decent marks, I had to keep reading. After I got past the first few pages I began to appreciate the layering structure. For those who wish to read the novel and worry about getting hopelessly confused, never fear! I’ve got you covered.

pelagie timeline

This is a timeline of characters. Pélagie the grouch and Louis-a-Bélonie are the narrators of the story. Their ancestors are Pélagie Leblanc, called the cart, as well as the original Bélonie Maillet sometimes called the old chinwagger. Genealogy is important in the novel as it is important for many Acadians. Very often, Acadians will introduce themselves by introducing their family line as an extension to their first names. For instance, for me, I would be Alice-a-(father’s name)-a-(grandfather’s name). The French “a” in this case basically translates to the English word “of.”

For those whose original language is French, I would greatly recommend reading this novel in its original French language rather than its translated English version. The novel contains many colloquialisms which are translated awkwardly into English. Even though I could have read the original French version (and I did attempt it), I found the French version difficult to read as it is written in an older Acadian dialect. If I would have taken my time, I probably would have understood the story, however, I was pressed for time and had to content myself with reading the English translation.

Once you get past the colloquialisms unique to Acadian culture, underneath is an engaging story that anyone can connect with. Acadian culture is extremely vibrant and lively just as the narrative voices of this book as they excitedly tell you of the adventures of Pélagie’s cart. Pélagie: The Return to Acadie follows a similar storyline to the biblical story of Exodus. Pélagie represents a maternal matriarch figure who leads her people back to the promise land of Acadie. Meanwhile, the story weaves in mythical structures and characters such as a romantic captain who swoops in just in time to save the day, a midwife healer who can save someone from the brink of death, a giant with an enormous amount of strength, and an old storyteller who is continuously pursued by an ominous death cart.

Final rating:

A Excellent

About the Book

Title: Pélagie: The Return to Acadie (original: Pélagie-la-Charette)

Author: Antonine Maillet

Translator: Philip Stratford

Original language: French

Year Published: 1979

Pages: 259

Genres: fiction, folklore, Canadian, Acadian, Maritime literature, myth, historical fiction

Until next time,