Thursday, May 12, 2011

Historical Fiction: Evangeline by Ben Farmer

Seventeen-year-old Evangeline Bellefontaine lives in Grand Pre, Acadia. It's 1755, and the motherless girl is looking forward to marrying her love, Gabriel Lajeunesse, in less than a week. All of their plans change, however, when the French Acadians are rounded up by the English and sent away from their now-destroyed homes. Evangeline and Gabriel are separated, not to see each other for over ten years as they struggle to survive, find each other again, and forge new lives for themselves in the strange lands of the American colonies in this retelling of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem.

Idea behind plot: A+
Final book: B-/C

I had really high hopes for this book. The idea of the plot is great: a retelling of Longfellow's poem, written on a historical subject that is rarely touched upon in history classes. The expulsion of the Acadians from their homes in Canada and journey to the American colonies, including Louisiana, is one of those huge (and awful) events in colonial history that, for whatever reason, doesn't get discussed that much in either courses or literature. What's disappointing about Evangeline is its characters and the telling of the story. The book covers the years between 1755 and 1769, yet few changes are seen in the characters - primarily the same throughout the novel - and I found it hard to connect with the characters themselves. Especially towards the end, their motives seemed unclear, almost as if the author was trying to work in some deeper reflections on individual power and gender relations that didn't quite come through. The last 100 pages or so just left me frustrated with all of the characters.

What Farmer does do well, however, is carry across the idea of a pre-Revolution America that would be alien to most of us today. Much of the plot takes place in Baltimore and New Orleans, but not the Baltimore and New Orleans readers today are familiar with. Farmer portrays Baltimore as your average little (emphasis on little) port town, while New Orleans bears similarities to the final outposts of the Western frontier with their attendant rough men, drinking, soldiers, conflicts with Native Americans, and lack of women. Another piece of history the author portrays well is how the Acadians, like other groups, were caught between two European powers in their struggle for colonial American empires, with both sides having other things to worry about besides the welfare of a single colonist group. It's amazing what unfair things people will do to each other in war just over greed and cultural misunderstanding.

Maturity Factor: Adult situations, especially towards the conclusion, but nothing graphic. Also, there's an attempted rape scene.

My copy of Evangeline was received from the publisher, Overlook Press. First published in April 2010, the paperback edition went on sale May 3, 2011.

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