Laurie Beausejour, all but a little girl and orphaned on the streets of Paris, personifies the dilemma of the poor and downtrodden in 1660s France. The first part of Bride of New France reaches into Laurie’s life in the infamous La Salpetriere, “the most miserable institution of the kingdom” and nothing but a place to lock away the most wretched women of France.
Once looked after in the refined house of Madame d’Aulnay, Laurie finds herself with only her best friend, Madelaine, for comfort. As they watch the arrival of the City’s prostitutes, the girls discover they are victims of a heinous scheme that exploits the “bijous,” those girls gifted in the art of needle and thread. Hungry for stories, Laurie wants to know all that she can, yet she scoffs at the plight of poor, sickly Mireille, who has a husband waiting for her across the sea in Canada where she thinks she’ll have a refined, golden life.
Notre-Dame rises from the dirt “like an ancient amulet for Paris,” guarding against evil while Laurie endures death and beggars and Mireille’s frightened talk of New France’s “Savages.” When Laurie writes a letter to the King Louis XIV imploring him to give her and the inmates a better life, his uncharacteristic response leads her into the orbit of Madame de Close, who renews Laurie’s hope for the future, and arranges for Laurie to be married across the sea in New France.
Desrochers captures much of the fatalism associated with the hardships endured by les filles du roi, the women immigrants who were packed off to Canada in the middle part of the seventeenth century, and also the stoicism of the hardscrabble men forced to eke out a life in the new territories. These farmers and soldiers were expected to marry the newly arrived women and, on orders from the King, to produce children. The author details with accuracy and honesty Laurie’s daily feelings, from the cold, misty terror of the North Atlantic crossing to her vain hope for living a common life of love and loss and modest success.
Canada certainly proves to be no place for women. The King “had better hang his criminals” than send them across the sea. Shivering with hunger and homesickness, Laurie spends most of her waking hours wishing she could be like Madeleine, satisfied with prayers. Her only comfort is with Deskaheh, a young Algonquin aborigine whose scarred face is the only thing that seems to interest her. Deskaheh is able to get Laurie though the worst of the freezing winter while her husband, pink-faced Mathurin, vanishes for months into the woods, trading in animal pelts for survival.
In this story of sin and heartbreak and survival, where abortion is “the only crime worse than adultery,” Laurie chooses to ignore the advice from a kindly innkeeper that if she goes and lives with Deskaheh she will become “an enemy of the people.” No matter what Laurie does and the hardships and hunger she is forced to endure, her life becomes our own as we witness her bearing the emotional and frustrating burden typically faced by women in this age.
Desroches creates a Canadian frontier world of humid, icy air, where the weight of the past bears down on Laurie as she weaves through often precarious circumstances. The author’s locale adds to the sense of consistent threat: the harsh winter, the lack of food, summer’s mosquitoes, and Laurie’s long trials of abandonment. The beautiful prose gives an avid, vital sense of place even when the novel is sometimes weighed down by Laurie’s constant grief and tragedy.