This is a tiny bit older than most of the books I review, but it’s (for once) really great and I could not pass it by.
The King’s Daughter, Suzanne Martel, 1974 (English translation 1980).
For whatever reason, the Brides of New France are not a fascinating topic for novels and media, which is totally baffling to me. I wrote an article for the Toast on them in 2013, and it absolutely boggles my mind how little popular fiction exists about the topic! (Yes, I read Bride of New France, and no, it was irredeemably awful.) When I read The King’s Daughter for the first time, I thought “Aha! Here is a novel that covers the topic well!” but I only wish there was an equivalent for adult readers that was handled with grace and detail.
Part of the reason I don’t understand the lack of good media is because the premise is ready-made for romance novels, and this is no exception. Jeanne, the protagonist, has been living in a convent (as was normal in 17th-century France for orphans) since she was ten, and has the standard Wild-And-Free personality doled out to most YA heroines of the 70s and 80s. So she’s ludicrously excited to be chosen as a fille du roi and sent to New France along with her friend Marie, and is thoroughly convinced she’s going to find a dashing officer to marry. (Spoiler alert: No.) Marie, though, already has a cousin living in New France who wants a new wife after the death of his first wife, and he sends a letter to Marie asking her to come and marry him. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. So off they go, along with Marguerite Bourgeoys, who is in charge of these women and returning to New France after a two-year break back in regular France.
Unfortunately, Marie is a major buzzkill and falls in love with a sailor on the way over. I must say that if I was Sister Marguerite I would be exceedingly unhappy with this turn of events, because come one, we’re bringing you over to marry a colonist, not some rando sailor because you fall in love with the first man you meet after having been raised in a CONVENT. They land in New France, and Marie is all goofy in love, but the home she’s staying at receives a letter from her fiancé, Simon, which Jeanne just happens to intercept. Because she’s such a great friend, she tells the messenger that she’s Marie, and heads off into the woods to marry Simon instead. I have many friends whom I love dearly but I have to say I would draw the line at marrying their fiancé, just so they could go off and marry some other dude they’d decided on instead.
She arrives in the woods, and is really, really unimpressed with Simon, but in fairness Simon kind of acts like a douche throughout the whole process. When she tells him she’s not Marie, he’s like “Well, are you still going to marry me on Friday? Because I have stuff to do.” Actually, it works out pretty well for Simon, because it turns out that Jeanne is the spitting image of his first wife, so, convenient. Apparently Simon’s first wife, Aimee, was killed along with one of their children, but his two other children were rescued, so Jeanne is going to be a stepmother as well. After their super-bare-bones wedding, there’s a dance at the governor’s house, and while Jeanne is initially having a great time dancing with all these men, her husband shows up and basically makes everyone really uncomfortable by being really stiff and awkward. He whisks her off immediately afterwards and has a long conversation with some Indians in the woods, and then informs her that they’re going to be leaving the next day, but never actually says where. So far, things are not looking terrific for Jeanne, maybe leaving this dude to Marie would have been the better option.
They leave Ville-Marie the next morning, Jeanne and her husband and a whole number of other voyageurs. The other voyageurs manage to tell her a little bit about her husband, who is apparently a very well-respected fort-builder. Everyone seems to like him, except for Jeanne, which is fair because the entire time they’re traveling he basically ignores her. When they finally reach Simon’s home, they meet his two kids, Nicolas and Isabelle, who are five and three, respectively. Simon gives Jeanne a little money, and she manages to get some clothes together for them before they set off on their way again. They also meet up with Gansagonas, the Huron woman who’s been looking after the kids for the past few years, and when they arrive at another home, Jeanne learns a bit more about her new husband—the wealthy son of a French nobleman, heart broken by a girl who went off and married someone else, and then headed off to the colony to escape.
Before they leave again, Simon teaches Jeanne to fire a musket, and she learns about useful healing plants, and at a reception Simon kisses her in a sort of mildly assault-y way. (I’m letting a lot of this slide in recognition of the fact that this book was written in the 70s, though.) Jeanne fakes her way into courage, and when they arrive at Simon’s home, she finds out that he’s going to spend most of the winter away on the traplines. Nice. But he fixes up the place, along with one of the voyageurs, who is named, I swear, Limp, who’s going to stay with them for the winter.
The kids take to Jeanne more or less immediately, and she tries to patch things up between them and their father, who doesn’t really know them very well. Or at all. But luckily, amazingly, Jeanne and Simon get along amazingly well and Jeanne is a fantastic mother right out of the gate. Simon takes her to an autumn fair, and he runs into a guy he had some issues with in the past, and they get into a fistfight in the street. Jeanne tries to help by banging a cast-iron pan down on the other guy’s head, but accidentally clubs Simon instead—and the attacker stabs himself during the scuffle. Thus Jeanne develops a reputation as an excellent wife for the colonies.
Not too long after that, Nicolas gets upset when he isn’t allowed to come on a hunting trip, and disappears and doesn’t return for dinner. Jeanne starts panicking and hunting for him and is really irritated when Gansagonas is like “Eh, we’ll find him when we find him.” Jeanne hunts and hunts for Nicolas and finds him late at night, lying at the bottom of a ravine with a broken arm. She cuddles up with him and the dog to stay warm all night, and Simon finds them in the morning. She loves Nicolas like he was her own son, despite the fact that she’s only known him for a brief while.
After that, Jeanne tries to teach herself to canoe in case she needs to do it in the future. But she tumbles into the water and Simon sees her do it, so he starts pelting down the river to fish her out and shouting “Aimee!”—his first wife’s name. Jeanne is devastated by this, but refuses to show it. But she isn’t all that upset when Simon heads off to spend the whole winter on traplines. Jeanne has the kids and Gansagonas and her brother and Limp and another voyageur, Mathurin, and the dog to keep her company. She becomes a much-vaunted healer, and people come from a long way around to get her to cure them, and by the time Simon comes back in the spring she’s got quite the reputation. He seems to be incredibly happy to see her, but he doesn’t quite believe that she’s such a healer until he accompanies her one time and has to leave, vomiting, when she sews up someone’s leg.
Then, out of the blue, someone from Jeanne’s past shows up. She grew up with her grandfather as a poacher, and once she ran into one of the local nobleman’s sons, who was several years older than she was and said he wasn’t going to get after her for the poaching. Then when her grandfather died, he came to take her to the convent, but she threw mustard powder into his eyes before they got there. He didn’t turn her in, though, and became a sort of amazing figure that Jeanne told stories about to her friends. Anyway, turns out he’s come to New France to seek his fortune, too, and he has a grand old time catching up with Jeanne about their past lives together (although frankly they’d met like twice, there wasn’t that much to reminisce about) and Simon gets incredibly jealous. So, a lot of jealousy on both sides, then.
When Simon leaves for the summer, a group of Indians comes by looking for a meal, and one of them is particularly keen on Isabelle. Isabelle disappears later that week, and Jeanne and Gansagonas go to their camp to hunt her down. Jeanne talks for hours about how much she loves her daughter and misses her, and eventually asks for her back and receives her. Jeanne is good at everything she does.
Including impersonating a man, though. Later that summer an edict is issued that trappers have to get permits, and Simon is far away. So Jeanne and the family go off for a visit to a wedding, and Jeanne stays behind secretly to become her own younger brother, “Jean Chatel,” and hooks up with a group of voyageurs to go get a trading contract. While on the way, she listens to them gossip about Simon and his wife—saying that the old wife had been always “afraid, tearful, and dissatisfied,” but the new one is “a capable woman for you.” While at Ville-Marie, she manages to get the trading permits in Simon’s name, and comes back with only one of them figuring out her secret.
Even a random Indian attack on the house isn’t enough to keep Simon there, and he screws off in the fall again. A couple of Indians come to tell Jeanne that he’s been seriously wounded, so she goes with them to see if she can help. He’s feverish after being ambushed, and Jeanne has to do some surgery to remove a projectile from under his ribs. While he’s delirious, he talks all about how miserable he was in France and how unhappy his first marriage was, and when he’s finally well enough to come home, he’s ill enough to spend the rest of the winter convalescing. Jeanne is pregnant, so they have a very cozy, happy winter after Simon is out of danger.
In the spring, there’s another attack by Indians, but this time Jeanne has enough time to hide the children and Gansagonas in the cellar with food and some of their possessions. She rescues some of their things, but doesn’t have enough time of the rest, and the Indians burn the house over their head. Jeanne manages to get into the cellar, and when Simon gets back a few days later, he’s initially devastated at the thought that he’s lost his second wife and children as well.
Jeanne has a daughter in the spring, and finally writes to Marie saying what a wonderful trick of fate it was that she got to marry Simon instead.
Rating: B. I really like this book for a lot of reasons, but it doesn’t quite clear the bar for an A rating. It’s interesting, and it’s a really fascinating look at life on the Quebec frontier, and I’ll forgive some of the awkward writing on the grounds that it was originally written in French and it’s not the world’s most lyrical translation. But Jeanne is a little too competent, to the point where it’s a little irritating—she goes from being a more-or-less hopeless case at the convent, to terrifyingly good at everything she does, including being a wife and mother. I’ll forgive the archetype of Simon being a stern and grouchy man with a heart of gold, since it was written in the 70s, but I’d certainly expect a bit more characterization if it was written today. All in all, I like it a lot, and the copy I have is physically very pretty, so I’d recommend it a thousand times.