OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
BACKLI’S FORD, an A’lle Chronicles Mystery – by Marcelle Dubé
Publisher: Falcon Ridge Publishing, 2012.
Cover Art: Allison Longueira
As stated in a blurb for the book:
“In the early 18th century, an A’lle generation ship crashed in the woods of Lower Canada. Survivors stumbled out of the wreckage to find French settlers working the land. While many of the colonists sheltered the injured A’lle, some reacted with fear and loathing. Two centuries later, nothing much has changed. This is the world Constance A’lle, first A’lle investigator for Lower Canada, must deal with when she investigates the beating death of an A’lle boy in the small village of Backli’s Ford. Set in 1911, Backli’s Ford follows Constance as she survives an ambush that would have killed a human, fights prejudice in the constabulary, and discovers a terrible secret that risks destroying the delicate balance that has endured for two centuries between A’lle and humans.”
Oddly enough, what first attracted me to this book was the fact I had just finished reading SUNSHINE SKETCHES OF A LITTLE TOWN by “Canada’s Mark Twain,” Stephen Leacock, first published in 1912. The most famous story within being THE MARINE EXCURSION OF THE KNIGHTS OF PYTHIAS in which the lake steamer Mariposa Belle, crowded with families, begins to sink. Hordes of amateur rescuers put off from shore in boats which haven’t seen use in years and are so leaky they sink just as they reach the Mariposa Belle. Eventually the Mariposa Belle rescues about 200 rescuers. Even though the Mariposa Belle herself has sunk. Not a problem, you see, for as it turns out the lake is nowhere deeper than about four feet or so.
Point is the book, full of Leacock’s trademark dry wit, is all about the remarkable, and humorous, characters of the fictional Ontario town Mariposa prior to World War One (references to “The War” refer to the Boer War which was the first time Canada sent troops overseas) and automobiles are rarely seen, at least in Mariposa. Leacock based these characters on real people who were somewhat put out by his “exaggerations” but in retrospect it gained them, and their way of life, a kind of immortality.
So, when I found out there was a science fiction mystery novel taking place in a small town in Lower Canada in 1911, I couldn’t resist the temptation to read it to find out what life was like in Quebec back then. And here I must confess my ignorance. I know next to nothing about the history of Quebec. Oh, to be sure, as a child in grade school I thrilled to the exploits of early French explorers, their relations with the Iroquois and the Hurons, the French/English wars, Plains of Abraham (where the French lost their North American empire) and all that, but this was decidedly from an English Canadian, not to say Imperial British, point of view. When I was a little kid we began school by singing “God Save The Queen” and prominent in every classroom was a world map with each and every possession of the Empire (on which the sun never sets) firmly coloured red. A bit odd, given that India had already achieved independence but I don’t recall that ever being pointed out.
But as for the French Canadians themselves, apart from their silly practice of depending on Napoleonic law “Guilty till proven innocent,” and their silly habit of dividing farms evenly among heirs until every farmer had so little land they were doomed to poverty, I can remember nothing being taught except a series of interminably boring interprovincial controversies over trade.
On the other hand, I greatly enjoyed the French Canadian CBC TV series THE PLOUFFE FAMILY, about a working class family just after World War Two, which ran from 1953 to 1959 in both French and English Language versions. My family watched both. The difference between the two versions was subtle, in that all blatant references to sex and all the swear words in the French language version were removed from the English scripts. Seems Quebec humour was a bit more “down to earth” than English Canadian humour in those days. (Montreal was known as “Sin City” and Toronto was called “Toronto the Good.”)
Yet the fact remains, at least based on my personal experience, that French Canadians always suffered from a bad press. Not anti-Quebecois exactly, but generally rather condescending in tone. In particular I’m thinking of the article OLD FRANCE IN MODERN CANADA from the February 1935 issue of National Geographic (which I have) which contains content like “Many families of 15 or 20 children are found among French Canadians,” “During the long winter evenings this elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. La Chance, of the Island of Orleans, spin and talk in their snug French Canadian home. Heaped on the floor is the raw wool that she will make into yarn for clothes and rugs,” or “Ninety-Eight years old – and church four miles away. A French-Canadian habitant sets out with snowshoes, near Montreal, wearing his gray wool cap, moccasin boots, and prized sash of hard-twisted wool, dyed in rich colours.” Not to say the information is inaccurate for the time, but in the rush to display the quaint, picturesque survivals of a bygone era the editors are rather playing up cultural stereotypes which reinforced the common English Canadian impression that Quebec was a backward fossil of a province.
So, long story short, it was with considerable curiosity I began reading BACKLI’S FORD. Right from the start, given that it is set in Lower Canada in 2011, it was obvious this was an alternative history timeline. Quebec was officially known as Lower Canada subsequent to the conquest and prior to Confederation in 1867 but I believe that was dropped post-Confederation. In the novel I don’t think I noticed “Quebec” or “Quebecois” ever being used. And, come to think of it, the ruling English Canadian presence isn’t much evident either. A few characters have English names, and Upper Canada (Ontario) is mentioned at least once, but the only sense of “other” (apart from the A’lle aliens) are the Americans lying across the river from Backli’s Ford. The novel is tightly focused on French Canadians and French Canadian authority figures. Why? I think to emphasise the A’lle are to French Canadians what French Canadians were to English Canadians, an alien presence tolerated but really sort of annoying because incapable of being assimilated and worse, rather stubborn about keeping to themselves. One could argue that the purpose, or perhaps one purpose among many, of the novel is to convey something of the alienation many French Canadians feel (or at least historically felt) in dealing with English Canada. That be my impression.
Another thing I find intriguing is the role of the Catholic clergy in this novel. Readers should bear in mind that for donkey’s ages English Canada was overwhelmingly and even militantly Protestant. Quebec, probably even now to a strong degree, was predominantly Catholic. Especially in rural Quebec, the Catholic church was the major “political” force directing people’s lives. So much so that the famous Dictator of Quebec, Maurice Duplessis, Premier of La Grande Noirceur (the Great Darkness) 1936-1939 and 1944-1959, based his popular appeal on “Catholic Family Values,’ stressing investment in Catholic schools and being notoriously and sometimes violently (courtesy of absolute support from the Provincial Police) opposed to trade unions, a free press, feminism, secularism and anything else that he perceived as threatening his power or the power of the Catholic church.
The Catholic church in Quebec was conservative to an astonishing degree. The gist of their viewpoint early in WWII was to promote Vichy France, blame England for the war, and push for Quebec as the rightful heir to the French Empire in North America, fore-destined to rule once again after the corrupt English presence had collapsed. A young, impressionable Pierre Elliot Trudeau (later Prime Minister of Canada and father of Justin Trudeau, current Prime Minister of Canada), while studying law at the Université de Montréal, fell under the influence of Catholic Priest Rudolph Dubé (nom de plume François Hertel) who advocated revolution against English Canada in the anti-bourgeois and anti-democratic tradition of French Canadian Catholic thinking. Consequently, Trudeau joined the reactionary and revolutionary group Frères-Chasseurs, participated in anti-government street riots, joined several other Quebec Nationalist outfits, and openly called for revolt against English Canada during a Federal by-election in 1942. However, contact with refugees from Europe, and later, travel about the world, soon convinced him the views of the Catholic clergy in Quebec had been blinkered and pathetically inaccurate. One reason he was later so opposed to the Quebec Separatists is that he had been one of them, had known many of them, in his youth.
So, given the above historical background. I was keenly interested on what the role of the Catholic Church would be in this novel. Turns out to be rather subtle. At least one priest is portrayed as a near villain, and most apparently hostile to the A’lle. Others, including the Archbishop in Montreal, not so much. In fact the church is divided, for the Popes in Rome over the past two centuries have not yet made up their collective mind whether the A’lle possess souls, and thus are truly human, or are soulless, a kind of Satanic construct designed to tempt the faithful into secularism. Much depends on the final decision as decreed by the Pope, a decision unlikely to appear any time soon as the church continues to be bitterly divided on the issue. It doesn’t help that the A’lle, every single one of them, reject any and all religion as illogical.
I am reminded of one of my favourite SF novels, A CASE OF CONSCIENCE by James Blish, in which a Catholic Priest is sent to the planet Lithia to investigate an intelligent race of reptiles who, though logical to the point of rejecting religious faith, appear to be living in a state of Grace without ever having been induced into original sin. Much is at stake, including the possibility that the dogma of the Catholic church is in fact a heresy displeasing to God.
And then there’s the infamous JESUS ON MARS by Philip José Farmer, in which the first astronauts to land on Mars discover, not only a race of intelligent Martians, but the presence of Jesus himself whose “second coming” apparently took place among the Martians (more worthy of this event than humanity, evidently), which understandably poses quite a conundrum to Christians on Earth. Is this the real Christ? Or the Anti-Christ in disguise? At any rate his presence on Mars and possible imminent visitation to Earth, is dashed inconvenient to many. Interesting book, to put it mildly.
The heroine of BCAKLI’S FORD, Constance, is very wary in her dealings with Catholic Clergy. After all, there is circumstantial evidence some of them are a party to the silent pogrom against the A’lle which appears to be taking place. The hostility of the clergy is justified, considering their concerns, but even the most fanatical are apparently willing to entertain the possibility they are wrong and so moderate their opposition and disdain, or so it seems. The book eventually spells out the nature of the true situation, both for the church as a whole and in terms of the behaviour of the individual priests involved. In other words, the role of the Catholic clergy is entirely credible and fully integrated into the plot.
In order to keep the A’lle clearly in mind as “the alien other,” and thus serve as a metaphor for the French Canadians struggling against English Canadian prejudice, differences are pointed out, but they amount to subtleties rather than glaringly obvious and painfully jarring features. No tentacles waving about, for instance. After all, both English and French Canadians are obviously both human, despite cultural differences, so the concept of A’lle as “other” can’t be stretched too far, or else the whole point of the book would suffer.
Most visibly the A’lle are slightly taller and more robust than the average human, and possess unusually large pupils. They can see in the dark, but find bright sunlight a bit of a pain. Their pupils are a brilliant blue. Always. No exceptions. They are also noted for enduring cold rather better than humans, but are easily wilted by heat. Many other differences crop up from time to time in the book, some of them rather humorous in nature. Others are a slight exaggeration of (allegedly) existing human tendencies, such as variations of “second sight.” Most significant of all, while it is not mentioned whether sex between the two races is possible (unless I missed it – the sort of thing I normally notice), reproduction is physically impossible, the two races cannot breed. Which makes physical attraction a bit sad and forlorn. It also explains why the A’lle tend to keep to themselves and why certain hostile humans might consider genocide against the A’lle something easily accomplished.
Constance’s boss is Médéric Desautel, Chief Investigator for the Magistrate of the Baudry Region, based in the town of St. Vincent, not far from Backli’s Ford. He was assigned Constance (fresh out of training) six months earlier, thought to be of use for the police because of her second sight abilities, but he actively dislikes and mistrusts her and, until a day ago, used her primarily as a glorified file clerk. However, given that the murder victim found in the public square of Backli’s Ford was evidently an unknown A’lle man, he had sent Constance to investigate as her first case, albeit in the company of two officers he trusted to keep her under their thumb and firmly under their control. Now the two men are missing and she showed up in Backli’s Ford battered and amnesiac. Desautel is quite annoyed.
Point is, it would have been simple for the author to maintain Desautel as a mere foil for Constance to work against, and the plot of the novel would be well-served and kept rolling along nicely. Likewise, her suspicions regarding his distaste for her would have been equally serviceable. Instead, in the course of the novel, both characters reluctantly come to understand and appreciate each other despite numerous misunderstandings and false starts. To the point where Desautel becomes outraged to learn how callous the police authorities in Montreal are over numerous A’lle deaths in their city and he becomes, for the first time in his life, willing to disobey higher authority in order to get at the truth. In short, he learns something Constance, and indeed all A’lle know well, how to work around prejudice and contempt.
There are many characters in the book, and ultimately, through their interaction with each other, all turn out to be more than what they seem at first sight, in many cases evolving according to changing circumstances. This renders BACKLI’S FORD a very mature work of literature as opposed to something “merely” entertaining, though it is that as well.
A word on the crashed spaceship. Other than accounting for the origin of the A’lle it has no relevance in the novel. No mention of surviving artifacts from the wreckage, no hint of technologies learned from scientific study of its remains. One half expects it to be merely a roadside tourist attraction along the lines of “See the local demon-goat farm and buy some gasoline while you’re at it” but no, not even that. It’s as if no one, not even the A’lle, had any use for it. Maybe nothing survives. But, really, the hard science aspect of the crash has no bearing on the function and purpose of the novel. It’s all about the A’lle themselves and what their very nature brings to the problem of relations with the humans. I think Marcelle was very wise to focus on this and leave out details unnecessary to the theme and plot.
As for the “Sunshine Sketches/Plouffe” aspect of the novel, one of its major delights is the description of the life lived by its assorted minor characters. You get a real sense of how hard it was to live in isolated farms and small communities, or for that matter in Montreal itself which had a population of only 300,000 in 1911. Hard, yes, but perfectly normal. Of course giving the horse a good rubdown after a winter night’s ride is taken for granted. Not to mention outhouses and wood-fired stoves. Hard physical labour was common for everyone, including housewives. You had to be some kind of wealthy, upper class twit to avoid it. No servants? Then you do it. Slaving over a hot stove had real meaning in 1911.
Montreal in that time period is wonderfully described. Desautel grew up in Montreal and is astonished to see how many sensible two-story buildings have been replaced with arrogant structures as much as five stories tall. And the number of automobiles in the streets! He sympathises with the movement to restrict them to certain roads and leave the rest free for horse-drawn transport. Certainly the civilized thing to do.
No matter which building visited, farmhouse or police station, each is described in rich detail inside and out. The novel is a very successful time machine in that regard, it really gives the reader a sense of going back in time and being there as a fly on the wall. The description is vivid and satisfying. Easy to imagine yourself a contemporary visitor.
One thing especially striking is the relentless description of winter conditions. The entire novel takes place over a single winter. Constance, being an A’lle, is especially sensitive to cold and therefore hyper-aware of every conceivable aspect of frost and snow and ice, so much so that it made my feel hyper-nostalgic for the dark, bitter winter environment of my youth growing up in Ottawa. In this respect the novel is thoroughly Canadian indeed.
Backli’s Ford is an excellent and satisfying crime mystery with SF elements, as well as an intriguing commentary on English/French relations in Canada historically and metaphorically. If you enjoy both historical novels and mysteries that take the time to set up in-depth characters and passionately describe settings, you will enjoy this novel. I certainly did.
Check it out at: < Backli’s Ford >
Check out the sequel at: < Epidemic, Book 2 of the A”lle Chronicles Mystery >