The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
Among my gifts last Christmas were two novels from Québec, Spring Tides by Jacques Poulin, in English, and The Iguana, by Denis Thériault in French, and reading them I was reminded of the huge symbolic presence of the St. Lawrence River in the early history of Canada, and its mythological presence in the literature of Québec.
I first got a sense of this not long after I moved to PEI. I still owned an old house in Ontario, just where the great river begins. We were on our way there by car and had dawdled our way through New Brunswick. Early evening, and I was tired of driving when we turned west at Rivière du Loup. We had no plans for the night, and on impulse, I turned off the highway a few miles to the west, and we drove down a steep hill and found ourselves at the old Manoir St. André. In the morning, instead of returning to the highway, we drove along the local road and through Kamouraska. We stared at the wide powerful river, the great blue hills on the other side, passed outcroppings of Appalachian rock, interspersed with flat salt meadows flooded and drained by watergates on the river. An uncanny beauty to it all, and at the edge of the town is the local seigneurie, site of the murder that is the dramatic core of Anne Hébert’s novel, Kamouraska, and the movie that Claude Jutra made from it.
Over the last decade we have made the trip at least once a year, sometimes stopping for the night on the south shore, on other occasions taking the ferry across the river to the north shore and driving down to Québec. We have stayed at a fascinating village called Port au Persil, built in a cove below the rock heights of the north shore. Once we drove northwest to Tadoussac to see the white belugas and the great whales that feed at the mouth of the Saguenay fiord. Another year, on our way back to PEI late in August, we drove all the way around the Gaspé where the river grows wider and wider until finally the north shore is invisible over the long reach of the gulf.
My acquaintance with Quebec literature and film is pretty superficial, but reading Poulin and Thériault I was reminded of the symbolic significance of the St. Lawrence. Spring Tides takes place on Île Madame not far downstream from Quebec. The Iguana describes the life of two boys somewhere on the north shore, further toward the gulf. Kamouraska has at its core a winter journey 400 miles along the south shore to the town where the murder at the centre of the tale takes place. In an essay on the films of québecois writer and film-maker, Pierre Perrault, the Canadian film critic Peter Harcourt gives an account of three of his films that take place on the Île aux Coudres, just off the north shore near Baie St Paul and writes about the centrality of the St. Lawrence River among the signposts of Québec imagination.
Existence along the shores of the great river has been documented as far back as the diary of Jacques Cartier—who called the north shore “the land that God gave Cain”—and at least one Anglo-Canadian writer has made use of the material. Cartier’s diary is one of many sources for Douglas Glover’s Elle, an historic fantasy based on an old tale about a sixteenth century French woman abandoned on an island in the gulf.
A magic place: on our bedroom wall hangs a black and white photograph taken on that first trip; the gleaming Kamouraska river flowing through fields toward the St. Lawrence in the early morning light, the rocky offshore islands called Les Pèlerins, beyond them the mountainous heights of the north shore—a graphic souvenir of the great river and the ancient settlements on its banks.