An Interview with Suzanne Desrochers
1) Laure seems at times to be a dreamer, a rebel, and also a closed book. How do you see her character?
I see Laure as a slightly bitter young woman in the beginning. She felt shortchanged by her childhood and was not happy to be in the Salpêtrière. However, I think she comes to have a deeper understanding of human suffering as the novel wears on and she realizes that others have faced hardships as well.
2) Laure sees Madeleine as an angel figure. How did their friendship evolve over time?
These two characters complement each other. They represent on the one hand a steadfast engagement with the injustices of the world, and on the other a strong focus on spiritual transcendence. Laure offers Madeleine a foothold on the earthly plane by talking about their future together as seamstresses and convincing her to board a ship for Canada, while Madeleine serves as a constant reminder to Laure that these aspirations are transient and that she must look deeper to find an inner peace.
3) Laure is desperate to pass something on to baby Luce. How do you view the link between material possessions, family history, and identity?
Laure has no material possession to help her recall her father, but instead clings to a few fading lyrics of a song he used to sing to her. She has little more than that to give her daughter, and Luce’s only memory of her mother will be buried deep in her subconscious, since they were separated in the immediate postpartum period. These relationships and memories are in many ways a metaphor for doing research on marginalized groups who have not left behind a significant paper record. The depth of their feelings and the value of their lives are no less than those of their wealthier counterparts, but we need to rely on more intuitive tools to uncover their traces on the landscape.
4) Was this book equal parts historical research and creative fiction? How long did it take to finish?
Yes, I suppose it is part fact, based on the historical record, and part intuitive knowledge, which I suppose is what defines writing as "creative." It took about five years to research and write the novel. During that time I worked simultaneously on digging through the archives and learning the dates, the historical figures, and the factual details while imagining and writing the story.
5) Racism is woven deeply into the story and its characters as a subplot. Can you discuss the slave boat and the relationship between the colonists and the native people?
Colonialism was based on the premise of cultural superiority. Europeans used the people and the land they encountered to attempt to extract resources for material gain. Religion and social structures were imposed on the societies they encountered. These are the very foundations of contemporary Canadian society. We still study history, for the most part, as if the upper class (mostly male) European players had it right, and we continue to replicate and live by the institutions they established.
Very few people saw anything wrong with colonialism during the period that I studied. In the novel, Laure observes the slave boat but does not have any strong sense of injustice toward what is happening onboard. She feels attracted to Deskaheh despite herself and views him through racist eyes even though he is her lover. But I think that because Laure has also been at least partly victimized by colonialism, she is more able to sympathize or at the very least to notice it is happening.
6) The history of the filles du roi is fascinating and quite surprising. Did similar policies exist in what is now the United States?
The concept of sending women from Paris to New France (Canada)—and also to Louisiana as depicted in Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut—had an earlier parallel in England. Women were sent at the start of the seventeenth century from London’s prisons and poorhouses to America. When colonial demand for women, either as wives or laborers, needed to be met, colony administrators turned to urban institutions such as the Salpêtrière in Paris and Newgate Prison and the Bridewell in London. In particular, women were sent to Virginia to labor in the tobacco fields. Many of them perished. For the most part, the "new world" was not a popular destination for seventeenth-century Europeans.
7) Near the end of the novel (page 283), you write, "The endless trees of Canada are swallowing all traces of [Laure’s] life." Can you explain this? Do you see this as a positive turn of events for Laure?
Only in the sense that there is a certain degree of freedom when your life becomes a tabula rasa. However, at that particular moment when Laure is experiencing the beginning of her marriage to a man she is repulsed by, in the middle of a forest already turning colder than anything she has ever felt, her feeling is one of deep despair.
8) Why did you choose the ending you did?
So much historical emphasis on the filles du roi has centered on their collective reproductive achievement&8212;that is, giving birth to a new nation. I wanted to explore the value and historical contribution of these women from within the contours of an individual life. There surely would not have been any reward for women who transgressed beyond the boundaries that were laid out for them by royal authority. Laure had to suffer tremendously for her rebellious nature.
9) Were you thinking about the concept of destiny when writing this novel? If so, how did it alter the plot lines?
I think for the France component I thought more about destiny in terms of how Laure’s life was being controlled and negotiated by hospital and royal authorities. However, once she reaches the new world, where many of these social structures are less rigidly adhered to, she begins to experience a more spiritual destiny. Her life choices are not easier in Canada, but the possibilities for her future become vastly open.
10) Can you tell us what you are writing now?
I am in the process of completing a PhD thesis at the University of London that compares the migration of French and English women to North America in the seventeenth century. However, I also have a few ideas brewing for a new novel that focuses on what happens to Deskaheh, Luce, and Laure as the French overpower the Iroquois in the succeeding decades.
- Laure’s disdain for Mireille is so deep she won’t even speak to her. Why? Discuss how Mireille’s life and death affected Laure’s own character.
- When Laure learns of Madeleine’s childhood problems, she thinks that “so many times [she] had thought Madeleine would not be so kind and soft-spoken to everyone if she had encountered misfortune. But could it be that her devotion and simple, gentle heart were formed out of the suffering of her childhood?” (page 111). Do you feel that compassion is borne of suffering? Was this true for Laure? Does this tie into Laure’s relationship with gratitude?
- Discuss Madame Bourdon’s comment, “Canada is obviously no place for women.” Do you agree?
- Do you see Mathurin as weak and cowardly? If so, why? If not, how do you see him?
- Laure makes reference to herself as a madwoman at several points in the story. Do you believe this to be true? How did you perceive her mental state as the story progressed?
- Laure and Deskaheh both long to go “home.” In what other ways are they similar?
- How does the concept of destiny affect the story’s plot line?
About Suzanne Desrochers
Suzanne Desrochers, of French Canadian descent, has conducted extensive research on the filles du roi and is writing a PhD thesis at King’s College London
on the migration of women to America. She lives in Toronto.
Books by Suzanne Desrochers
A Canadian bestseller, this richly imagined novel is about a young French woman sent to settle in the New World.More