Thursday, May 28, 2020

Why do I tell the Franco-American story?

My friends at the French Canadian Legacy Podcast asked a few of us to write on this theme: "Why do I tell the Franco-American story?" Here is my response.

Why questions are ambiguous. The question “Why do you tell this story?” can mean “What was the impetus that gave rise to you telling this story?” Or “why” can mean “What is your purpose in telling this story?” I’ll speak first to how I started telling the Franco-American story and then to what might be some purposes in telling it.

I have always been interested in the origins of things. When confronted by anything from a style of music, to the X/Y coordinate system in algebra, I would wonder how it came to be, how it developed, and who was involved. I’m unclear on the origin of this interest in origins. My mother’s storytelling and her interests certainly influenced me.

I’ve been a storyteller since I can remember. I imagined my own stories and was both the creator and the audience for them. Eventually, I wrote them down. I started writing when I was 11. I wrote about 100 pages of a sci-fi novel around that time, believe it or not. My interests turned toward nonfiction in high school, philosophy and history in particular. I read, researched, and scratched naïve notes in loose leaf notebooks. I’d write, and I did, when the only one who read it was me.

As I recount in the introduction to my book A Distinct Alien Race, it was at age 19, while I was in college, that my father died. He was buried with my mother’s family in Biddeford, Maine where there is a vast Franco-American cemetery where almost all of the text, on almost all of the gravestones, is in French. At least it was at that time. It’s not just a few gravestones, either, but many thousands, spreading out over acres. When the priest who came to read the prayers at the burial asked if we wanted them read in French or in English, I knew I had to explore these origins.

After getting a college degree I slowly developed a career as a researcher, writer and editor for academics, authors, businesses, and consulting firms. I have a small number of academic citations in some of the areas I researched and wrote about for my clients. It seems obvious, in retrospect, that I would combine my interest in Franco-American origins with my profession. But when I started learning in detail about the Franco-American story, I didn’t conceive of myself as a public storyteller of that particular story. 

Starting around the turn of the 21st century, I occupied myself at almost every possible moment at the New England Historic Genealogical Society library in Boston. I filled notebook after spiral bound notebook with handwritten scrawls of genealogical and historical information, extracted from the library like impacted wisdom teeth. My notes dealt with history as much as with genealogy. 

On the Number One bus between Comm Ave., Boston and Harvard Square, Cambridge, I would pour over what I had written in my notebook that day, often typing up and organizing the notes once I got home. I was telling these fragments of Franco-American stories to myself, and then to my sister, and to one or two other people in my family. I wasn’t writing a book yet.  

It was only when people asked if I were writing a book, or suggested I write one, that my interest began to go public. I wrote a couple of articles for publications like Le Forum out of the University of Maine, Orono, and I had a website, and then a blog. I read every year at the gathering of writers and artists under the auspices of the Franco-American Center at the University in Orono. It was the response to these early forays into telling the story that encouraged me to make my research and writing on these topics public, leading to speaking engagements, a book, articles in mainstream publications like Smithsonian and TIME, and more speaking.

That’s a sketch of the series of events that led me to tell the Franco-American story. But why bother telling Franco-American stories?

Why do we tell any story? Because stories make meaning of our lives. It looks as though humans can’t live without making meaning. If anything, we have a glut of meaning. We tell so many stories about ourselves and others that we populate the universe with our meanings.

Let’s not understate the weight of storytelling. The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Bhagavad Gita, The Bible consist, in whole or in part, of stories. Of such are derived entire civilizations and worldviews. Stories bring worlds into existence.

I heard a vague story growing up about my Acadian great-great-grandfather Joseph Doucette and his involvement in the Tenant League Riots on Prince Edward Island. The story, as sketchy as it was, conveyed volumes. The story situated my ancestors in a hierarchy and taught me that there was some “we” who had a prescribed relationship to that hierarchy. 

It also conveyed the perception that our ancestors were the underdogs, struggling against a perceived injustice, and that the “bad guys” were the English. This was different from most of my friends in the good ol’ USA for whom the English were friends and allies, as most Americans in the generations born after World War II regard them. The story also suggested that there was a difference between what was legally binding and what was morally right.

Along with the story came the emotionality of it: we were the ones fighting. There was conflict, loss, hope, pride a whole set of feelings that came along with the story.

I’m also aware of the potentially dangerous limitations of any origin story, storyteller, and storytelling. No telling is comprehensive, none definitively true in an apodictic sense or even in an emotional sense. I have no illusion that my telling of the Franco-American story is complete or definitive.

To craft a narrative is like carving a statue out of marble, a great deal is left on the scrap heap. Stories thrive on omission, on emphasis, on juxtaposition of this detail placed like a diamond in this setting rather than that one. Their incompleteness – the narrative equivalent of negative space – gives them form and life.  

There are so many Franco-American stories that I’m unable or incompetent to tell them all. It is impossible to tell it all and remain coherent. The truth of Franco-Americans is not the fragments I happen to have told, but all of the stories, the sum total of all tales – both real and those we imagined to be true.

So, why do I tell the Franco-American story?

Because my father died when I was 19 and I never had a chance to have an adult relationship with him.

Because I’m a storyteller from way back, and I’ve found a juicy yarn, that I thought I could tell well.

Because it makes meaning for me and, it seems, for others, too.

Because history is for the present. The fact that we never learn from the past doesn’t mean it’s useless to tell the stories.

Because if we don’t tell the stories the people who said “it’s the rabble who are leaving” Québec; the people who said we were a “low and sordid people,” that we had been kept “a distinct alien race”; the Klan, eugenics advocates, and their ilk, will win. Can’t have that.

Because my forebears lived and died in those mill towns and their spirits won’t let me not tell the tale.

Because, now, there’s someone out there listening.

Because it’s mine to tell.

My book
A Distinct Alien Race is available here

Monday, May 4, 2020

Errata – A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans

Mistakes. You try to avoid them of course. You check your facts and then check them again and still errors sneak through.

If you read many books about the same subject – as I did when I was researching the textile industry – you will find factual errors in all of them. Without exception. This includes books published by the likes of Harvard and Yale. This is not to make excuses for my own errors. There is no excuse. But I am in good company.

Below are a few mistakes of fact (excluding typos) that we have discovered after publishing the book A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans.

Page 220: I state that William MacDonald was President of Bowdoin College. He was not the President but a professor of Political Science and History at Bowdoin from 1893 to 1901. The President of Bowdoin in this period was William De Witt Hyde – who, like MacDonald, also wrote about Franco-Americans.

Page 238: I state that “One of the first General Conventions of Canadiens of the United States in October 1868 condemned the then-recently created Dominion of Canada. It censured what the convention saw as undue pressure on Nova Scotia to enter the Confederation. The Convention called for U.S. annexation of Canada or a republican form of government for the latter.”

This passage is based on press reports of the 1868 convention and I cite an article in the New York Times from October 9, 1868 as my source. Apparently, a telegraph press release regarding the convention was issued, and used as the basis of the Times's report and several other press accounts.

Gatineau's History of the Conventions
of the French-Canadians of the U.S.
However, in the October 13, 1868 edition of the New York Times, J.B. Paradis, a Secretary at this convention, in a letter to the editor, corrects that newspaper’s account of the convention’s work. Paradis confirms that political resolutions along the lines indicated by the Times were offered at the convention but voted down. He writes that the convention “was in no respect of a political character. Its only object was to promote the interests of the St. Jean Baptiste societies in this country, and especially to effect a union among them all.”

The book Historique des Conventions Générales des Canadiens-Français aux Etats-Unis 1865-1901 (Félix Gatineau, ed., Woonsocket: L’Union Saint-Jean Baptiste d’Amerique, 1927) has only brief notes about this 1868 convention, but what is there tends to corroborate Paradis’s account. It is as of yet unclear to me exactly what happened at that convention, but I would tend to honor Paradis’s eyewitness report.

In my text, the point of citing this convention was to show support among Franco-Americans of this period for the annexation of Canada by the U.S. The offering of these resolutions, even if voted down, tends to corroborate that annexation was on the minds of at least some Franco-Americans.

Page 296: I place the Whitin Machine Works in Whitinsville, Rhode Island. Whitinsville is in fact a village of Northbridge, Massachusetts, about ten miles from the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border.

None of these factual errors overturn the conclusions of the book. But truth is a high priority. Where mistakes were made, we'll correct them. The mistake regarding William MacDonald was corrected in the second printing of the book. The others will be handled in subsequent editions. I will update this list should further errors of fact come to light.
Purchase the book here.