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Canada through the eyes of world literature

More Annoying French-Canadian Tourists

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Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994)

I read this novel because, years ago, I saw a woman reading it on the subway and I was intrigued by the title. It’s probably the second-best book I’ve discovered that way (after I Am A Cat), though that’s not a great compliment since the others I can recall are The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman (great title, mediocre book) and Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree (an aesthetic disaster, but weirdly fascinating from a “people actually read this” perspective).

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? begins with the narrator, Berie (short for Benoite-Marie, of course) and her husband in Paris, and returns to this framing device from time to time. Most of the novel, however, is told in extended flashbacks and concerns the relationship between  Berie and her best friend, Sils, as they go through adolescence.  The set-up feels rather familiar in that the narrator is more withdrawn and observant (the “writer type”), whereas Sils is wilder and more adventurous; the style is given to the kind of metaphors and imagery that earn praise in writing workshops.

There are actually numerous references to Canada in this book – too many for me to catalogue them all – but they fall neatly into two general categories, some dealing with French-Canadians, and some with the role Canada played for draft dodgers in the Vietnam era.

1.1 Exotic Canadian French

One thing I like about Lorrie Moore: she didn’t make me wait long for a reference to Canada. This passage comes in the book’s opening pages:

Although no voice was ever plain in our house – not really. Even if it took practically my whole life, until the summer I was fifteen, for me to see that. There were fancinesses: Years of my mother’s Canadian French slipping out only in the direst of lullabies.  (6)

The word “fancinesses” suggests that, as a young girl, Berie was fascinated by a certain exotic sophistication in her mother’s Canadian French. And what are these dire lullabies, we are left to wonder? Traditional French-Canadian songs, perhaps, detailing folk tales of murder and revenge? Or has the word “direst” been chosen not to convey any actual meaning, but simply to provide a striking contrast with “lullabies”?

1.2 French-Canadian Tourists

Berie and Sils both have summer jobs at Storyland, a fairy-tale-themed amusement park in the upstate New York town where they live:

I was an entrance cashier. Six thousand dollars came through a single register every day. Customers complained about the prices, lied about their children’s ages, counted out the change to double-check. “Gardez les billets pour les maneges, s’il vous plait,” I would say to the Canadians.  (10)

On the next page:

In summer the whole county was full of Canadian tourists from over the border in Quebec. Sils loved to tell stories of them from her old waitress job at HoJo’s: “I vould like zome eggs,” a man said once, slowly looking up words in a little pocket dictionary.
“How would you like them?” she’d asked.
The man consulted his dictionary, finding each word. “I would like zem … ehm … on zee plate.”
That we were partly French Canadian ourselves didn’t seem to occur to us. Sur le plat. Fried. We liked to tell raucous, ignorant tales of these tourists, who were so crucial to the area’s economy, but who were cheap tippers or flirts or wore their shirts open or bellies out, who complained and smoked pencil-thin cigars and laughed smuttily or whatever – it didn’t matter. We were taught to speak derisively of the tourists, the way everyone in a tourist town is.  (11)

For reasons of geography, the Canadians Berie speaks to are all actually from Quebec, so perhaps we should cut Moore some slack on the way she seems to conflate “Canadians” and “French-Canadians.”  Still, it’s hard not to feel that she must consider Canada a fairly insignificant country if she so blithely elides the difference between Francophones and Anglophones and speaks of us as if we all spoke French.

The general attitude to French-Canadians is one of contempt – though it’s a fairly benign contempt compared to, say, Michel Houellebecq’s attitude to Quebec tourists. But it’s difficult not to notice a slight whiff of stereotype coming off the page, as if Moore were playing to her (largely American) readership’s preconceived notions of what French-Canadians are like: the use of “z” for “”th”, the open shirts and bellies – by the time we reach the pencil-thin cigars and smutty laughs, these tourists have begun to sound like moustache-twirling cartoon villains.

The fact that Berie and Sils mock the tourists despite being partly French-Canadian themselves adds a level of irony to these passages, but it also points to a certain truth: making fun of people who share their background is a way for the girls to distance themselves from their own French-Canadian heritage and confirm their identity as (proudly unhyphenated) Americans.

1.3 Blood, The Inescapable

Yet Berie continues to refer to her French-Canadian background, as in this description of herself and her brother:

The thick pelts of our eyebrows shrieked across our faces, some legacy of the Quebec fur trade.  (29)

The reference to the fur trade harks back to a classic (and familiar) idea of Canada as a wilderness nation to be exploited for its natural resources, but the meaning of the sentence is a little opaque. The use of the verb “shrieked” is an excellent example of “writing workshop style,” where so much focus is placed on the search for “colourful” or “expressive” verbs that regard for sense becomes secondary. It’s also not clear how thick eyebrows are a legacy of the fur trade; did the voyageurs develop extra-thick eyebrows to protect themselves against the cold? Is there some suggestion that they interbred with beavers or other fur-bearing animals, leading to thicker eyebrow hair in their descendants? The sentence sounds nice if you read it once, but the more you try to parse it, the less sense it seems to make.

There is also this intriguing passage, about Berie and her husband Daniel when they’re in Paris:

At night, Daniel is tired from the medical conference he is here at the Institut de Genetique to attend. As a researcher he is mostly, recently, interested in the Tay-Sachs gene we both carry – what Jews and French-Canadians have in common.  (70)

This is a reference to Tay-Sachs disease, caused by a genetic mutation that occurs in both both Ashkenazi Jews and French-Canadians. Curiously, early studies of the diesease led to the fascinatingly named (though now discredited) “Jewish Fur Trader Hypothesis,” which, in a weird way, seems to gather together several of the threads of Moore’s ideas about Canada.

Over all, Berie’s relationship to Quebec is one of forcefully trying to impose distance on something that remains inescapably close; the girls affirm their identity as Americans by mocking the Canadian toursits, but at the same time, from her eyebrows right down to her genes, her French-Canadian heritage is something that Berie cannot evade.

2 The Perfect Place to Dodge the Draft

Much of the flashback portion of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? occurs in the summer of 1972, in the era of Nixon and Vietnam, and in that context Canada plays another important role for the characters in the novel. The following passage is a description of Sils’ mother:

She was a sweet and guilt-ridden mother, exhausted from her older sons (their loud band practices in the basement; their overnight girlfriends; their strange, impermanent, and semiannual treks across the border to Canada to avoid the draft, though their numbers were high….  (14)

Canada is mentioned several more times in the same context, as Berie refers to Sils’s brothers being “in Canada again” (20) or “just back from Canada” (89). It is, of course, a fact that many Americans came to Canada to avoid the draft. This particular form of escape is also connected to a larger idea of Canada as a more pacifist country where Americans opposed to the war in Vietnam could go to avoid being forced to serve. So Canada is tied up, by virtue of its proximity, not only in the U.S. economy (as Berie notes above), but also in American politics and its ramifications.

There are also a couple of references to the music of the period that we might take note of:

…the country was in upheaval, there was Vietnam and draft dodging and rock music and people setting themselves on fire. Laws seemed to be the enemy. So we dispensed and dispatched, ceased and desisted: we made up our own rules, and they were loose. We were inventing things, starting over, nothing was wrong. Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.  (34)

And this description of Sils just after she has had an abortion:

Joni Mitchell was keening “Little Green” on Sils’s record player. Sils listened to that song all the time now, like some woeful soundtrack. The soprano slides and oos of the song always made us both sing along, when I was there. “Little green, be a gypsy dancer.” Twenty years later at a cocktail party, I would watch an entire roomful of women, one by one and in bunches, begin to sing this song when it came on over the sound system. They quit conversations, touched people’s arms, turned toward the corner stereo speakers and sang in a show of memory and surprise. All the women knew the words, every last one of them, and it shocked the men.  (91)

It’s noteworthy that in two separate passages where popular music is connected with the idea of the ferment of the times and with the personal struggles of the characters, the music that speaks to them is by Canadians: Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green.” Despite Canada’s apparent insignificance as a country, individual Canadians have played a role in writing the soundtrack to the American experience of the twentieth century.

The Music

When content permits, I like to wrap up with music. Here is Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green”:

And here is “Ohio” as performed by CSNY:

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6 thoughts on “More Annoying French-Canadian Tourists

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