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Gérin-Lajoie, Jean Rivard, le défricheur (1862) and its sequel Jean Rivard,
économiste (1864). 2 Although neither novel is particularly visual, the
land is constantly present and the few landscape descriptions are highly
revealing of an ideological evolution taking place within the novels
and, perhaps, within the French-Canadian mentality.
After a brief 'avant-propos' in which the narrator proclaims his text to
be a true story, not a 'novel,' Jean Rivard, le défricheur begins with the
unexpected and untimely death of the protagonist's father, which leaves
the talented youth of nineteen stranded, without professional prospects
(18). Forced to abandon the family land and fend for himself in a world
no longer suited to his education, it is difficult not to see in his plight not
only a trace of the eviction from Paradise, a mythological dimension
ever-present in French-Canadian lore and literature, 3 but also, a parallel
to (if not a parable for) the fall of New France and its replication in the
failed patriots' rebellions, both of which left its 'sons' psychologically
disconsolate, economically destitute, and culturally displaced. 4
Jean Rivard's plight is defined explicitly as a national phenomenon,
and when the parish priest points him towards agriculture, 'la mère
de la prospérité nationale' (27; the mother of national prosperity), he
is merely reiterating a nationalistic propaganda prevalent at the time,
whose message Jean readily espouses. The population explosion in
the Saint Lawrence valley, however, pushes him to emigrate towards
'les Cantons de l'Est,' whose natural beauty is extolled by the none-
too-silent narrator: 'Partout la nature s'y montre, sinon aussi sublime,
aussi grandiose, du moins presque aussi pittoresque que dans le bas du
fleuve et les environs de Québec. Montagnes, collines, vallées, lacs,
rivières, tout semble fait pour charmer les regards.' (32-3; Nature re-
veals itself throughout, if not as sublime and grandiose, at least as pic-
turesque as in the lower river and surroundings of Quebec. Mountains,
hills, valleys, lakes, rivers, everything seems made for enchanting the
eye.) But, as the title suggests, Jean Rivard must not only 'défricher' the
land, that is, transform it, in order to guarantee its future productivity,
but also 'déchiffrer' its natural signs in order to assess its potential, just
as his mentor M Lacasse can determine 'd'après l'expérience qu'il avait
acquise durant sa longue carrière, à quels signes on pouvait juger de la
bonne ou mauvaise qualité du sol' (38-9; from the experience he had
acquired during his long career by what signs one could assess the
good or bad quality of the soil).
This double role of déchiffreur / défricheur in the name of culture entails a
constant struggle against nature, which Gérin-Lajoie consistently conveys
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