The Winter of Their Discontent
It is the year 1734, and Baron Jean Luc de Montigny, consumed with a series of family tragedies that threaten to overwhelm and engulf him, steps off a ship with his young son, Pierre, in Quebec City. It’s a New World in many ways. His discovery of how different this colony is from his estates in France hits him when he’s faced with a variety of crises stemming from his choices and the effects they produce on those around him.
Born in Quebec myself (but not French Canadian), I was intrigued by the idea of a story set in that lost period of time. Winter Passage (Behler; $14.95) by Paul Raymond Côté and Constantina Mitchell takes place at a time when Quebec was still under French rule, but not yet part of the British Colony that would eventually become Canada. Sadly, there aren’t enough stories out there dealing with this part of Canadian history when a young set of settlements struggled to find their path in a wilderness that could be brutal and beautiful at the same time. Even as they attempted to maintain their culture, these immigrants coped with Native Americans, slavery and the underlying fear of witchcraft that permeated society then. Add the threat of the British to the south of this small French colony, and you find a people struggling with the twin roles of sustaining themselves and maintaining family ties to their original homeland. This theme—dueling natures and demands—so deeply imbedded here, affirms that no matter how far you go, where you end up or who you find yourself with, you will always have family, physically present or not.
Winter Passage details this unique world so perfectly and with such depth that I would love to see this as a motion picture or at least a television miniseries. The vivid descriptions of the atmosphere in which the Baron lives and works, the societal trappings that control his movements and routines, even the simple act of courting a woman are laid out in marvelous groupings of words: “I was living the experiences with her as she spoke. The flames in the hearth blazed high for a moment before beginning to die out. The surge of brightness caused her to pause. Only then did I realize how late the hour had become.”
Fear is often described in novels, but in this one you suffer its tightening grip through repeated onslaughts of nature’s deadly forces, witchcraft and the pervasive danger of then-deadly diseases.
While the Baron worries about his own attraction to a young widow he also has to contend with the legal issues surrounding his inheritance—there is another Frenchman who has laid claim to his late uncle’s estate and now his entire future may rest on a single legal decision as to who is the rightful heir. But at the same time he is torn between pursuing his claim and the ethical dilemma of becoming the new owner of not only the land, but also the slaves that his uncle had collected over time. Is it better to let the estate go into someone else’s hands and avoid the problem of dealing with slavery or chase after his rightful inheritance and deal with the slaves himself?
You’ll find yourself drawn into the world of New France, a place where a simple snowfall can be a death sentence and the simple act of dating a woman can be a perilous trip through centuries-old customs. As I finished the book I was sad to say “Adieu” to the Baron, Pierre and even William, the gallant marjordomo of the Quebec estate.
The only misgiving I have about this book is that its powerful story seems to demand two separate volumes. I wished for more depth of the characters and events already grasped me by the throat almost from the first page. Would it be too much to hope that the authors consider a prequel, a sequel or another independent book in that same exotic setting? It would be a shame not to since we see so little of such finely written material in the current literary world.
The richness of the novel is matched by the exquisite cover design, a brilliant mix of image and words that produces a feast of concentrated pleasure.
Winter Passage is a must for the reader seeking great historical fiction and desiring to break free of the usual parameters that define this genre. It is a delightful read with characters that linger and ordeals and choices that haunt your mind long after you put the book down. This is, to use a clichéd truism a must-read for anyone seeking to peer into this little known but captivating area of North American history.
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