Banished from Our Home

I feel compelled to start off every single Dear Canada review with “my God, this book is super depressing.” This one is no different, because of course not. Probably because it’s about the Acadian Expulsion, one of the most depressing events in Canadian history, and doesn’t improve from there.

Banished from Our Home: The Acadian Diary of Angélique Richard, Grand-Pré, Acadia, 1755, Sharon Stewart, 2004.

angelique

I went to graduate school in New Brunswick, and consequently learned a fair bit about the Acadians, but I am in no way an expert in this part of history (other than, as I mentioned, “depressing.”) And if you are very unlucky and get stuck with an Acadian person obsessed with the past, they will be happy to tell you all about the Expulsion, on and on and on in unending, depressing detail, the likes of which would make a history teacher thrill to hear. But luckily you don’t need to need any background to enjoy (“enjoy”) this story!

Angélique is one of eight children on a farm in Grand-Pre, where her family has lived for many years, and political pressure is making things difficult for everyone. One of her older brothers, Victor, is joining up with the rebels who are fighting against the British, which puts him and the rest of their family in grave danger. (At this point, Britain had conquered France and won Acadia, which means they were trying to anglicize the area and tamp down pro-French sentiment in the countryside. I know this is badly, badly simplified, please do not comment or email me to give me a history of the Acadians, I know.)

In the meantime, though, Angélique’s older sister Catherine is getting married, which is very exciting and makes for a busy springtime for the family. Then, in the midst of all of that, Victor argues with their father and leaves (right in the middle of planting season, too). The following week, their father is discussing the impending problems with the British, but Angélique is more preoccupied with the wedding and looking after her five-year-old twin siblings as well. The British don’t turn up in person until after the wedding, when they make a declaration that the Acadians can no longer travel to cities, use their boats, and must surrender all of their guns. Then, soldiers ransack their homes and seize their weapons by force, and all the Acadians can do in return is sign a petition saying, basically, how unfair it all is.

The British seize the last French fort in the area, and the Acadian men band together to go to Halifax to see the governor directly. (You may recognize this as the part in the horror film where everyone begins splitting up and doom follows.) Angélique’s mother takes on the bulk of the work during the busy summer season, and then they find out that her father has been taken prisoner! And tossed in jail! Then they seize their local priest, and they can no longer hear Mass. Three ships turn up from New England, and the soldiers store weapons in their church and use it as a garrison. Then, after they’ve fortified it, they require all men over the age of ten to turn up for a message AND THEN LOCK THEM ALL UP. This is literal horror-movie, Biblical-extermination level stuff! And then the hammer drops: they’re all going to be deported. The British mean business when they say they’ve seized the land, and they allowed them free only long enough to bring in the harvest and now it’s theirs. The men are hostages.

At the beginning of September they put the men on the ships, and the women and children are left to finish getting in the harvest alone. The British burn Cobeguit, a nearby settlement, and they finally finish off Grand-Pre at the beginning of October.

“Our dear familiar world is dead. It was killed by the British two days ago. Perhaps it would be kinder if they killed all of us too. We have been so terrified that all we could do is cling together and weep. WE are still numb with fear. But I will try to write down what happened as best I can…” Why the hell wasn’t that the pull quote for the back cover? That’s the best damn writing in the whole book! Anyway, it’s all done very haphazardly, and Angélique is nearly separated from her family before finding them aboard the right ship. Also, I cried at the part where Angelique gets into the longboat and her dog swims alongside to come with her. “It was Griffon! The shot hit near him, but he swam on. Bracing myself in the rocking boat, I stood up and pointed toward shore. ‘En arrière, Griffon!’ I shouted. I had sent him to the back of the pasture for the cows a thousand times with that command. He always obeyed, and did so this last time. His dear faithful head turned back. I saw him come safe out of the water…” I LITERALLY CRIED LIKE A CHILD. I cannot resist a sad story about a faithful puppy!!!

Angélique is with her mother, younger sister, grandmother, and twin brother and sister—everyone else is gone. Their father is in jail, older brothers gone or taken somewhere else, and her older sister gone with her husband’s family somewhere else. Then they wait. And wait. And wait. It’s two weeks before they’re reunited with one of her brothers—the other has escaped! But he gets caught and brought back to them, and they don’t leave until the end of October. Angélique’s grandmother loses her memory (or her mind) the day they go, but doesn’t physically die until the very end of October—the cruelest blow being that she is dropped into the sea rather than buried beside her late husband in the graveyard she wanted to be laid in. God, this is wrenching. And it just keeps GOING. Horrible event after horrible event!

Everyone is sick and miserable, they sail through a horrible storm, and finally by the middle of November they begin to hear the sailors talk about where they’re going. But the awful thing is that not all the ships are going to the same place! The ship Angélique is aboard is headed for Maryland, but others are headed for New York, Philadelphia, and plenty of other places. Angélique and her younger sister, who fought so grievously before this, spend most of their time on the boat learning to be friends as well as sisters, and looking after the twins as well. But then Belle, her sister, gets sick as well with some kind of terrible fever. They arrive at Annapolis near the end of November, but stay aboard the ship in the bay for days and days and days because the people in Maryland are trying to refuse all of these refugees.

“The men among us gather in little groups, and voices are raised in anger. We are dying of dirt and hunger. We would not treat animals the way les Anglais are treating us…”

In December, they’re allowed ashore, and are “cast upon the charity of the local people,” which seems like a horrifyingly bad way to arrange a forced expulsion if you ask me, but luckily a woman agrees to take in the remaining Richards. Well, sort of. IT’s in her shed. Angélique’s brothers head out to try to find work, and she sees that the newspapers are printing awful things about the Acadians—they’re thieves, robbers, murderers, and all-around generally awful people. Belle continues worse, even though the woman keeping them, Mistress Finnerty, is kind enough to bring her indoors and feed her properly.

But she dies, of course. Because this book is awful. She’s buried in the local Catholic church, and then they get the news that a man in Baltimore has offered space to more Acadians, so they need to leave AGAIN. So let’s recap: Angélique’s father is, at last report, in prison in Halifax. One older brother is off with the rebels, maybe dead? One older sister missing, with her husband’s family, could be anywhere on the eastern seaboard. One younger sister, dead and buried in a churchyard they’ll never see again. One grandmother, dead, buried at sea somewhere in the ocean. HORRIBLE.

They do make it to Baltimore, with a group of about 50 Acadians, and they arrange for a large house for most of them. But it’s in horrible shape, so they need to fix it all up, but ultimately it’s going to be multiple families per room and one communal kitchen and living area. Holy crap. Then Angélique feels compelled to bring in some money, and she wants to go into service, but her mother snaps that she is not a servant! So then what?

At Christmas, they have a priest in to say Mass—“He blessed our little chapel, and said Mass. People wept, for it was the first time we had heard Mass for many months. I wish I could feel God near me, but I cannot…” This is a really lovely touch. Without getting too over-share-y and personal, and with the caveat that I know absolutely nothing about church services other than the Catholic Mass, it’s extremely powerful to hear Mass after not being able to for a long time with lots of upheaval. Different churches do things slightly differently, but the format and structure and words are all the same everywhere you go, and it’s immensely reassuring. It’s like—not a drink of water on a hot day when you need it, but it’s more like a hot cup of tea on a cold and blustery day. You won’t die of thirst without it, but it’s immensely comforting in a way that’s impossible to describe in words.

Anyway, Angélique is super depressed (obviously), and decides to just get a damn job as a servant without asking her mom about it anyway. She’s a scullery maid, which is really just a dishwasher, and her mother is livid with her and also extremely upset that her children have to go out to work  after all of this. Her mother will have to take in laundry and sewing to make ends meet, and her brothers are out working at the docks, and another woman in the house will be looking after the twins—so they go from a farm family of ten to a family of six where four of them are working for other people. And then they get in trouble with the twins, because they—oh my god—go down to the corner and sing in an effort to wring coins out of people. So they’re begging. And then some English people report them, and try to take the twins away!

A miracle happens in the first week of 1756— Angélique’s father finds them! It’s joyous and wonderful, and then they have to tell him of everyone who is lost or gone, which is horrible. But he manages to find work in a carpenter’s shop, which means they’ll have enough money to make ends meet and help the other Acadians as well.

That’s the end. I’m serious. The “uplifting” ending. In the epilogue, they spend years waiting and trying to earn money and then walk back to Acadia in the 1760s. But their land has all been given away to the British, so they travel up the St. John River and settle there again. And Victor comes back!  He wanders all over before finding them again! But they never find Catherine again or even hear from her. Angélique eventually marries once her sister is old enough to help their mother, and has six children of her own.

Rating: A. I don’t even know. It’s wonderfully written, but horribly depressing at every turn. Which is not a reason to give it a negative rating, of course, just that it’s….hard to read. People are dying and leaving at every turn! The “uplifting” ending is just that things will continue to be depressing and awful, just 15% less so! God! Anyway, this book is great, definitely read it, but bring some tissues. Especially for any part with a dog.

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