Our Stories Versus Our Story
Winter- what a great time to get caught up on reading. I’m not a historian or a researcher, I just like to read. Especially when it comes to our Story. I was a senior in college when I first learned that there was a written Franco-American Story; something that was uniform to me and my experiences, that explained the rocking chairs, accordions, kitchen gatherings, and pork pies I had previously thought were unique to my family.
When I started to seek out more of this Story, I looked for books covering every aspect of it. Names like Chartier and Roby began to fill my bookshelves with lengthy all-in-one titles that covered everything from rural towns and hardship in Quebec to the Little Canada neighborhoods, parish schools and textile factories of the New England mill cities. My mind quickly absorbed the content and reinforced what I learned during my senior year. However, as I continued to read the books on our collective Story, I discovered a different type of Franco-American History Book- the individual family story; one that I would come to better connect with, and prefer. It wasn’t a realization or change that occurred overnight, but a gradual shift that got me to where I am now- seeking our individual stories rather than our combined Story.
While the Story explained many of the things my family did, the Story always seemed to take place somewhere else. My family’s experience didn’t quite fit the big picture. We didn’t settle in one of “the Big 5” cities that the Story seemed to focus on. There was no textile mill where we lived, and the predominantly French-speaking neighborhood of my father's youth wasn’t called “Little Canada.” Something was off- our story didn’t seem to fit The Story- but it didn’t stop me from continuing to seek it out. Eventually, that searching led me to the individual family stories that would put it all together for me.
The first revelation came when I read Jean Court-Desrochers’ memoir “Up from Maple Street.” I thought the greater connection I felt to his story was due to it taking place in my father’s hometown of St Johnsbury, VT. As I would soon learn, my father knew the author; he was a year ahead of my father, and one behind my Uncle. The opening chapters immediately conjured up images I knew from experience, or from the stories my family had told. I had walked those steep, hillside streets that made up the neighborhood, eaten at the Dunkin Donuts that sat across from the Portland St Bridge and entered the high school football field by way of the footpath where his father used to sell hot dogs. Unlike the historical volumes about textile mills in Manchester and St Jean Baptiste parades in Lewiston, this one seemed to be about a Franco-America I knew personally. It was the first, but not the last, time I felt that level of connection.
Still, I continued to seek and find the big books that told our Story, with attention paid to topics like the Sentinelle Affair, the Amoskeag Strike, and Lowell’s favorite son Jack Kerouac. But in the process, I also found more individual stories like Annette King’s “Growing Up On Academy Hill” and Margo Lemieux’s“Henri’s Early Days in Fall River.” After a few of the stories- I understood their differences from The Story, and how much I enjoyed them.
As with Court-Desrocher, I felt a greater connection to these stories. I realized that the initial connection to Court-Desrocer’s was less to do with my own knowledge of the modern town, and more with the relation I made to his Franco-American story. That would become the case with the memoirs and biographies I was finding more and more frequently. When people wrote about neighborhood games with Croteau’s, Paquin’s and Letourneau’s, hearing grandparents praying the Rosary in French, eating Christmas dinners with all those Aunts and Uncles, meeting parents walking home from work, I suddenly had a first-hand window into Franco-American life. I saw my own experiences, and heard my family’s stories in theirs; Sunday mass, but not the Sentinelle Affair, words like Canuck but not “Chinese of the East,” work in the factory but not textiles, stories that showed that my family wasn’t outside the lines of The Story.
As a group, we have a Story; and it’s a great one. I’ll never tell someone not to read it- I’ll encourage it every time. But we also have stories, and I find that I learn just as much from them. I find myself seeking them out and connecting with them. I’m just as happy (maybe more so) with Sandra Levesque’s “The Levesque’s of Maple Hill Farm”, or Lorrraine Dutile Masure’s “Growing Up Franco American”, as I am with Lacroix’s “Tous Nous Serait Possible”, or Richard’s “Loyal But French.” I find a certain value in those stories, and I believe that they belong right there with the big Story.
Throughout these short paragraphs, I’ve mentioned several of the stories I’ve enjoyed. I’m also looking for the next ones. So help me out whose stories have you read?