26 July 2010

Avert Your Eyes, Children!

Legends of Quebec: From the Land of the Golden Dog
Hazel Boswell
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1966

Hazel Boswell seems to have led such a charmed life. A direct descendant of the first Marquis de Lotbinière, she spent much of her childhood at the Seigneury de Lotbinière on the south shore of the St Lawrence between Quebec City and Trois Rivières. When her grandfather, Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, was appointed Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, she moved into Victoria's Government House, where she spent six years living off the public purse. I can find no evidence that Miss Boswell worked so much as a day in her life, though she did study art under Horatio Walker and Percyval Tudor-Hart.

Miss Boswell was a mere fifty-six years old when Viking published her first book, French Canada: Pictures and Stories (1938). A very slim volume, it features glimpses of Quebec life and folklore, accompanied by the author's very pleasant colour illustrations.

The Christian Science Monitor thought it a "lovely picture book", while Montreal's Gazette found it "charmingly illustrated... in gay colour, reminiscent of the French Canadian's own hooked rug pattern [sic]."

Miss Boswell dedicated French Canada to "the children of the Province of Quebec". Most had children of their own by the time Legends of Quebec, her second book, was published. On the surface, it's more of the same: a collection of folk tales with paintings by the author. However, Miss Boswell seems to have undergone some changes in the twenty-eight years between books. For one, the octogenarian had been robbed of much of her ability as a visual artist. Quebec, too, had changed, a fact recognized by the author in her Foreword: "These folklore stories have come from the years long past when French Canada slept its enchanted sleep amongst its apple orchards and maple groves, and time was measured by the chime of the church bells."

It's an odd statement, evoking a gentle, idyllic time that is better reflected in French Canada than Legends of Quebec.

The first of the book's ten tales, "The Feast of St. John the Baptist", moves the saint's story to an ancient kingdom that is said to have once existed somewhere north of the St Lawrence. There are reveillons and tortières, but all is otherwise familiar... until Salome straps on her skates. A vain and careless creature, she ignores warnings of thinning ice and tumbles into the drink:
As she fell, she struck a great block of ice floating down the lead that was widening. The jagged edge of the block was as sharp as a razor blade, and as it struck the Princess, it sliced off her head just above her collar. In a moment her body sank out of sight, but her head on the great block of ice went drifting down the lead before the horrified eyes of her friends.
In Legends of Quebec, bad things happen to bad people, but also to the not so bad. Here a man is crushed by a tree after dismissing stories of the White Owl as a bird of ill omen.

In "Felix the Obstinate", a farmer who tends to his farm rather than attend Good Friday mass finds that the sap coming from his maple trees has turned to blood.

And then there's Cléophas Ouellet, the wealthiest farmer in Ste Rose des Pins, who loses his temper over some inclement weather and takes a shot at a wayside cross.

In an instant, Cléophas is paralyzed. Able only to move his eyes, it seems he is doomed to spend eternity standing in his potato field, unable to say an Act of Contrition... or get off a second shot.

Enchanted sleep? Bloody nightmare is more like it. Thank God French Canada woke up.

Object and Access: A squarish hardcover in heavy dust jacket, Legends of Quebec has all but disappeared from our public libraries. Fortunately, decent copies aren't hard to find and begin at about C$9. The most expensive on offer, at C$45, is signed by Miss Boswell.


  1. I love (among other things) the cheery expression on the bird of ill omen's face. And even a feeble weakling like myself would have to work pretty hard to be crushed by that tree.

  2. I'll join you in boasting that I'd be able get out from under that birch tree. And yet, Felix Leroy - yes, another doomed Felix - was no match. The next morning, he's found dead: "One of his hands was grasping a curl of the bark - his last mad effort to try and free himself."