Yves Frenette and France Martineau, with Virgil Benoit, Eds., Les voyages de Charles Morin, Charpentier canadien-français (Non-fiction)
Review by
Leslie Choquette

YVES FRENETTE and FRANCE MARTINEAU, in collaboration with VIRGIL BENOIT, EDS., Les voyages de Charles Morin, Charpentier canadien-français, Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2018. ISBN: 9782763738796.

reviewed by Leslie Choquette

Autobiographical writings by people with little education are as precious as they are rare, providing a window into the poorly documented world of popular language and culture. For eighteenth-century France, we have the memoirs of Jacques-Louis Ménétra, a glazier who recounts his youthful peregrinations as a journeyman before inserting himself, day by day, into the grand narrative of the Enlightenment and French Revolution (Roche, ed., 1982). Now, thanks to this excellent book, Les voyages de Charles Morin. Charpentier canadien-français, there is a francophone counterpart to Ménétra in nineteenth-century North America.

The editors present the memoirs of Charles Morin, a son and grandson of farmers, who was born in Deschambault, Québec in 1849 and died in Argyle, Minnesota in 1922. Though largely self-educated, Morin eventually wrote two accounts of his youth, for his own pleasure, no doubt, but also for the edification of his family. These hybrid texts, with their mixture of popular and more refined French, allow us “to hear the language of the period in all its nuances” (54, all translations mine).

Found in Argyle and St. Paul by Morin grandchildren who were unilingual English speakers, the manuscripts came to light when the owners contacted Virgil Benoit, a specialist on the French of the American Midwest, for help with translation. This book is a collaboration between Benoit and two distinguished scholars of French North America, historian Yves Frenette and linguist France Martineau. Their excellent general introduction is followed by the text of both manuscripts, presented one chapter at a time, with the original version and one with standardized spelling on facing pages. Each chapter is annotated and preceded by a brief introduction.

These memoirs “provide privileged access to the construction and evolution of the identity” of an ordinary French Canadian (1), one of hundreds of thousands who traversed the continent in the nineteenth century. Charles Morin grew up on a “fairly prosperous” family farm (10), though with eighteen people from four generations crowded into the antique stone farmhouse. Charles was the second child, and oldest son, of fifteen. He attended school until age twelve, giving him “an advantage that my companions don’t have” (105), at a time when two-thirds of rural Quebecers were illiterate. At sixteen, he did a brief apprenticeship as a carpenter-joiner, and at seventeen, he helped build barns and houses with his father and an uncle before leaving “to go earn my living in Montreal” (63).

Several major themes and identity markers emerge from Morin’s narrative: the centrality of work migrations, the striving for upward social mobility, and Roman Catholicism. As Yves Frenette has pointed out (1998, p. 90), geographic mobility was an important element of French-Canadian identity. Morin moved around continually for two decades, and his travel years take up almost all the space in his memoirs. (In contrast, Ménétra’s artisanal Tour de France, although related in great detail, accounts for only a third of the text of the French glazier.)

Morin’s itinerary was complicated. After two years in Montreal (1866-1867), he worked in and around Deschambault from 1867 to 1871. In 1868, during a stint in Saint-Ursule, he refused the opportunity to settle down through marriage, feeling “too young” at eighteen and a half (109). In 1871, he returned briefly to Montreal before leaving for Pembroke, Ontario, a linguistic border crossing he perceived as significant: “Now I took the plunge and went to a foreign country to earn my living” (159). After a stint in Rapides-des-Joachims (in Quebec northwest of Ottawa), he headed to Chicago, where he quarreled with his boss and left for “the south” (179), getting as far as St. Louis. He planned to visit New Orleans “for Mardi Gras” (189) but changed his mind and moved on to St. Paul before making his way back to Chicago via Milwaukee and Evanston. In 1872, he returned to the Ottawa region, and in 1873 he went back to Deschambault and Montreal. In 1874, he was in Kingston, Ontario, Montreal, and Lachine. He would have married in Montreal in 1875, but the young woman’s parents disliked him. He moved to Saint-Hyacinthe in 1876, returned to Montreal in 1877, then decided “to leave for California” (219). From the train on the way to San Francisco, “I see for the first time the prairies of the West that I had heard so much about from the old fur traders” (257). After a few months in California, he wanted to ship out “for Tahiti through Honolulu” (275), but the ticket was so expensive that he ended up going to “English Columbia” instead (277). He worked in British Columbia from 1877 to 1881, returned home to Deschambault in 1882, and left in 1884 for Argyle, Minnesota, where three of his brothers had acquired a homestead. He finally married there in 1887, at the age of thirty-seven.

For Morin, geographic mobility was closely linked to social and occupational mobility. No matter how far he was from Quebec, he was always able to locate and join a network of French-Canadian workers. He described his wages, hours, and working conditions as carefully as he did his itinerary. Unlike his compatriots who flocked to the textile factories of New England in these decades, he shunned industrial work because “I prefer to open my own business” (199). After a few years as a building worker, he became an entrepreneur, and he ended his career as a self-taught architect. His memoirs, a kind of true-life Bildungsroman, end with him finding financial success, first in British Columbia, then in Argyle, a Red River boom town. An artisan in search of economic independence, Charles Morin managed to fulfill his North American dream.

A third basis of his identity, Roman Catholicism, occupies a special place in the memoirs. Morin’s narrative begins with his birth and moves immediately to the sacraments: “In 1860 I made my first communion and 1861 confirmed in the same parish” (63). At the end of his first trip to Montreal, he even enlisted in the Papal Zouaves, but when the Catholic recruiting committee lacked the funds to send him to Europe, he signed on as a laborer for a church builder instead. During his stay on the Pacific Coast, Morin defended the Catholic clergy and religion against impious French and French-Canadian immigrants. In San Francisco, he was unable to find work because he refused to join the Odd Fellows, a non-denominational fraternal order, due to the church’s suspicion of secret societies. When he finally found success in British Columbia, it was as a builder working for the Church. At the Numukamis mission there, he worked closely with Abbé Auguste Brabant, a Belgian missionary whose courage and erudition he admired. Thanks to this acquaintance, he wrote a very detailed ethnographic description of the Nuu-chah-nulth, in stark contrast to his earlier pejorative impressions of Native peoples. Morin concludes one version of his memoirs with a short mystical text.

The memoirs of Charles Morin are thus an extraordinarily rich testimonial from the period of great migrations in francophone North America. We owe a debt of gratitude to the editors for making them accessible.

Works Cited

FRENETTE, Yves. Brève histoire des Canadiens français. Montréal: Boréal, 1998. 211 p.

ROCHE, Daniel, ed. Journal de ma vie : Jacques-Louis Ménétra, compagnon vitrier au XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Éditions Montalba, 1982. 432 p.

Note: An earlier version of this review appeared in French in the journal Recherches sociographiques, vol. 60, no. (2019): 697-698. The author and the editors of Résonance would like to thank that journal’s editors for granting permission to publish this revised and expanded English translation here.