November 19, 2013 by The Editor
“Your mention of my mother and father warmed my heart. Because I cannot write my native language and have no native home anymore, and am amazed by that horrible homelessness of all French-Canadians abroad in America.”
—Jack Kerouac, letter to Yvonne le Maitre, September 8, 1950 (Selected Letters 228)
In October, I went looking for a book to read and picked up two: The Painted Drum which I read first and have reviewed, and Bird Cloud, by Annie Proulx. Proulx’s work is widely known. She is perhaps best known for her works The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain” a novel and short story respectively both of which have been made into movies.
Bird Cloud: A Memoir of Place (2011) is one of Proulx’s few non-fiction works. It was published almost 25 years after her last non-fiction piece. Although I have not read any of her fiction, I was drawn to read this work after leafing through the pages. Specifically I came across several references to her family background, her genealogy, and ethnic heritage.
These are all areas of interest for me, and since she is of French Canadian heritage, my interest was especially piqued. Someone on the Great Lakes French Canadian Facebook forum that I started recently asked about people’s favorite French Canadian-themed writing, or favorite French Canadian author. This is not something you get asked everyday. How many can you name?
Add Proulx to the list. And not just because her last name is Proulx and she talks about her genealogy. Proulx is a Connecticut-born French Canadian who has lived and studied in Montreal, picking up some joual during her travels. In this memoir, her family heritage and home construction become parables of a sort for an unsettled life that nonetheless is inherently deeply rooted in history.
Proulx presents the complexity of ‘place’ in the French Canadian imagination with a quote from the most famous of all French Canadian writers in the US, Jack Kerouac, writing about “that horrible homelessness of all French-Canadians abroad in America” (a quote supplied to her by another contemporary Franco-American writer, David Plante.)
The second chapter of Bird Cloud, ‘A Yard of Cloth’, is where her genealogy comes in. But it is a not simply a meditation on her family history; in fact she presents herself as a reluctant recipient of genealogical data, confused and overwhelmed by the mass of information she receives from a professional employed to do the job. But the discoveries take her on a journey across North America, through the lives of ancestors who never seem to stop traveling.
That alone is a characteristic of the French experience in North America. For so many, the journey to Acadia and Quebec was only the beginning: there were the journeys of discovery into the interior, missions to build, fur trade routes plied by canoe for two centuries or more; there was the expulsion of Acadians and the exile of Patriotes and Metis leaders. Rooted, yes, but not still – by choice and fiat.
This one chapter is the crux of the entire work. Through the rest, Proulx goes into deep detail about the building of a house, at Bird Cloud in Wyoming. That process takes us on a journey of constant struggle against the elements, personalities, and funds in order to finally have a home where she can settle and get down to writing. The business of homebuilding though is punctuated by what really seems to matter – adventures with the building team to archaeological sites, bird watching, skiing through the winter landscape, the prospect of being shut in for months of snow, visits from far-off sons.
Through her building project and the course of her family’s history she brings the reader face to face with the transience of life. Via these experiences, she presents the reality that wherever we are, others have passed before. History is progressive. And as she builds at Bird Cloud, in the final chapters she presents the history of that place, her property, her ranch: a story that she tells through engaging with its ecology, archaeology, and history firsthand and becoming clearly connected to it along the way.
A Memoir of Place – Bird Cloud is the place, but this memoir is rather more about ‘understanding your place’ – in nature, in society, on this great continent – than it is about owning a place, a long history of one place, or calling a place home. For through the experience of life in motion, rootedness becomes an idea of commitment and inherent connection that may or may not signify remaining in one place forever.