Alone In An Untamed Land

This book is one of the first Dear Canada books I read, and it still stands up after all these years. (Almost ten!) It’s so good that I recommend it to adult readers looking for an intro to the filles du roi story (as we discussed last week, there’s a severe dearth of adult historical fiction on the topic).

Alone in an Untamed Land: The Filles du Roi Diary of Hélène St. Onge, Montreal, New France, 1666, Maxine Trottier, 2003.

helene st onge

Also as I mentioned last week, the basic plots of this is pretty similar to The King’s Daughter, probably because there are only so many places you can go with this idea. The young women who were selected had no families or were too impoverished to be picky, they traveled a long way, and something like 99% of them got married to voyageurs, merchants, or soldiers, and had huge families. This has an interestingly weird subplot, though, but we’ll get to that in due time.

Hélène St. Onge is thirteen years old and orphaned following the death of her father the previous winter. She lives with her older sister, Catherine, in their home, even though they can’t really pay their bills after his death. They have a cousin in New France who married a woman and then immediately died, and Catherine is engaged to a young man named Armand, who also lives in New France and whose father is an old family friend. So they already have ties to New France, and it’s not entirely surprising when their cousin and guardian offers to ship them over to New France on the king’s dime , although Catherine balks at allowing Hélène to do it too, citing the fact that she’s only thirteen. But Catherine packs up and they’re both off to Montreal within twenty pages. I like a nice brisk start to the plot without too much dicking around in the backstory.

For whatever reason, the genre of “young woman crosses the Atlantic in a ship to start a new life” was irresistible to me as a kid, and this is no exception. This is a particularly good example of the “genre” (if you can call it that, which I am, because it’s my blog and I get to do as I please), because Hélène does not skimp on the detail about how miserable the trip is. Catherine gets seasick immediately, but it gradually devolves into actual sickness, as she and several others all come down with a fever. She dies in pretty short order, leaving Hélène totally alone and completely bereft. So, to recap, Hélène lost her mother as an infant, her father six months ago, her sister on the voyage to New France, and now has only her cat to keep her company while she goes to a wilderness that is only barely settled. Yay, frontier fun times! These books are dark as hell.

For the rest of the voyage, Hélène doesn’t do much except grieve and slowly befriend a ten-year-old girl named Kateri, who’s making the voyage home with her French father, Jean Aubry. Kateri lost her Mohawk mother not too long before, so she and Hélène make friends, even though after Hélène has her birthday there are four years between them. Jean also looks out for Hélène, especially after Deschamps, the guardian of the filles du roi, tries to strongarm Hélène into becoming one as well to take her sister’s place (because, you see, they now owe a debt to the king, although frankly it’s not like Louis XIV was hurting for the cash, I imagine he’d break even on this). Hélène does eventually decide she wants to do it, pretty much because she sees it as a way to a more certain future than she’d have otherwise, just as they’re reaching Quebec City after a long trip up the St. Lawrence.

Hélène and Kateri are good friends, even though Deschamps thinks Kateri is some kind of monster half-breed, but the final straw comes when there’s a fire on board the ship while it’s in dock and they’re all hustled onto the lifeboats. Hélène and Kateri are both waiting to get into the dinghy, and Deschamps says there’s only room for one— Hélène is horrified, Kateri starts crying, and all the other filles start exclaiming that there’s plenty of room and Deschamps is being ridiculous. The ship is effectively wrecked, and several of the filles stay in Quebec City to marry, but Hélène opts to go with Jean and Kateri and some of the others on to Montreal to see if she can meet her aunt. Jean offers to look out for Hélène in recognition of what a good friend she’s been to his daughter, and they all head down the river to Montreal by canoe.

When they reach Montreal, Hélène goes to see Armand Lecote, her sister’s fiancé, only to find that he’s married someone else in the meantime. (Jerk.) But Jean does help Hélène find her aunt, Tante Barbe, who runs a tavern and an inn, and is extremely surprised and pleased to see Hélène. Barbe takes her on as an apprentice and begins to teach her everything she’ll need to know, which is basically everything. So she learns to do laundry and cook (including delicious things like muskrat, yum yum) and brew spruce beer and wash dishes and clean and a million other things that she never really had to worry about in France. (France, I gather, does not have a rich history of eating things like muskrat and beaver.)

In October after Hélène has been with her aunt a couple of weeks, Deschamps actually proposes to her on account of her “fine lineage.” Hélène is horrified at this, but Barbe thinks it’s hilarious and enjoys the irony. Jean comes by to ask if Kateri can stay at Barbe’s tavern while he has to go away for the winter, and they gleefully agree, but Jean makes some allusions to something he’d like to ask Hélène in private once he gets back. Hélène is shocked at how cold it is and how much snow they get, but she enjoys spending time with Kateri and her aunt, and the work makes the time go by quickly.

Kateri is pretty distressed when she listens to some of the, ahem, “rough words” of the voyageurs and soldiers who frequent the tavern, and finally confesses to Hélène why. Her father, who is French, and her mother, who was Mohawk, were married “country style,” or what would later be called a la façon de pays (in the fashion of the country) in Métis matters—meaning that they were married in an Indian ceremony but not by the Catholic church. So that makes Kateri technically une batârde, and so it upsets her greatly when she has to listen to idiots telling her that. Poor girl.

Jean finally returns just before Christmas, and he and Kateri return to their own home, but agree to come to celebrate Christmas at the tavern. They make plans to go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, but Jean is feeling a bit peaked, so he says he’ll only go if he feels up to it. Then there’s a five-week jump in the entries! Just before Christmas, Hélène goes over to the Aubry’s, only to find Jean terribly ill with smallpox. It’s dropped (very carefully and subtly) earlier in the text that Hélène had the cowpox as a girl, and Kateri had it earlier that year, so they’re immune to smallpox (that being the discovery that Edward Jenner would discover almost 150 years later), so they both stay there to nurse Jean through his illness. Barbe has never had it, so can’t come near them and leaves them food at the door, and the girls are trapped there for weeks. Jean pulls through, of course, and then confesses in his convalescence that he intended to court Hélène properly, which she absolutely did not see coming, and then says he couldn’t possibly with the smallpox scars he developed. But Hélène is not convinced that Jean is as horrific-looking as he seems to think he is, and agrees to maybe get to know him better In That Way.

Unfortunately for Hélène, Deschamps keeps pressing and pressing, utterly convinced that they’re going to get married (Douchebags: present in all ages and places!), and is really bitter when he finds out that Jean is also courting her. Jean makes Hélène a pistol (since he’s a gunsmith, not just randomly out of the blue) to protect her from Indian raids—and, one would presume, irritating men who think she’s going to marry them—and then teaches her how to use it. New France is hardcore.

In the spring, Hélène and Barbe and Jean all go to the wedding of one of the filles du roi who’s marrying a carpenter, and while they’re there, Jean finally proposes to Hélène. She agrees to consider it while he goes off on a hunting trip and Kateri stays with them again. But while Kateri is there, Hélène’s cat disappears, and the girls go out to look for her in the teeth of a spring blizzard. They get lost in the storm, and who rescues them but Jean and his hunting party?

Hélène finally receives a letter from her cousin in France, who says that if she wants to return he can arrange a marriage for her to a high-ranking vicompte, but she declines, saying that by the time her letter reaches France she will already be married.

In the epilogue, she marries Jean when she turns fifteen (!!!), and they have four children together.

Rating: A. I dithered a lot about how I wanted to rate this book. The biggest thing is, of course, that the very delicate romance is between a fourteen-year-old girl and a man old enough to have a ten-year-old daughter (so, round about thirty or so, give or take). Now, this was not particularly unusual at the time (although it was almost always more common for girls not to marry until their older teenage years when they had finished developing), but I’m honestly surprised that Dear Canada tackled it with such matter-of-factness. It’s not portrayed as weird or creepy or predatory, and it’s handled really, really well (and it helps that Jean is the platonic ideal of a supportive, non-pressuring, non-creepy older partner) but it’s still a bit surprising to me. But I do like that they approached it in such a way that it seems realistic for the time period! It’s great. Other than that, my only quibble is that Hélène is a little bit on the undeveloped side for a main character—the other characters are actually much better fleshed-out, which is unusual for a diary-style novel. We see a little bit that Hélène describes herself as having a temper, but we don’t really see it, among a few other things. That’s really minor, though, and everything else is great: great descriptions of New France, great characters, great plot development, and a really sweet cat, Minette, who reminds me of my own sweet cats and how poorly they would tolerate a journey across the ocean and to an entirely new world. (Hint: Very poorly.)

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