The question came up again over beers at the Tête des Allumettes brasserie and brewery, on the St. Lawrence River, just north of Kamouraska in eastern Quebec. I got into a conversation with my neighbors at the table next to me on the patio overlooking the river, and they asked, “Why are you doing this?”
I tried to explain. My ancestor Jeanne Chevalier was one of the 770 Filles du Roi. Since many people in Quebec know the story of the Filles du Roi, those very courageous women who came to Quebec, I was not surprised when they nodded their heads and urged me to continue. “These women were just as important to Quebec’s history as their husbands, yet little has been written on them! Hers is a story that needs to be told because without her there would be no Levesques!”
To their question about whether she was someone special — besides my eighth great grandmother, of course, I answered, “She probably wasn’t, compared to other Filles du Roi, but compared to young women in France at the time, she was quite extraordinary.” My high school French didn’t let me add, “She took a risk that very few women were willing to take in the 17th century since women rarely travelled around in France, or even consider emigrating. She risked everything and at the same time, she risked nothing to come to New France. An unknown future was better than no future — which is what awaited her in France.” So I must write her story, to keep it alive for generations to come and to share it with all descendants of Jeanne as well as other Filles du Roi … to give Jeanne and the other women of New France a voice and the recognition they deserve!
In truth though, the explanation goes deeper for me. My father was one of Jeanne’s descendants. Although he was almost 99 and 44/100% of pure French Canadian heritage (there is reported to be an Italian and a Caribbean ancestor somewhere in the mix), we did not grow up identifying with being French-Canadian. And we didn’t speak French at home, even though that was my dad’s first language. Both parents did not want us growing up with the bilingual “handicap” that my dad had had to overcome. In fact, in Nashua, New Hampshire, as in other northern New England cities and towns in the 1950’s, 60’s and early 70’s, having French Canadian heritage for at least some of us was a bit of a stigma. From the 1870’s to the 1930’s, a large number of French Canadians had immigrated to Nashua. Many didn’t or wouldn’t speak English and were ostracized from long-term New England residents and even from some of their own relatives who were struggling to assimilate. It wasn’t until the French Separatist movement of the late 1970’s, spearheaded by my (very) distant cousin René Levesque, that I began to take some pride in acknowledging my French Canadian ancestry.
So is this search for Jeanne’s story a quest to take back my identity and get in touch with those French roots? As we were sitting in my sister’s kitchen in Seattle, having tea over the 2013 Christmas holiday, she observed that I might be trying to make up for the lack of family, since our parents had both died twenty years ago and connections among my siblings and our cousins are not particularly tight. “You feel closer to Jeanne than you do to most of the family,” she remarked. “Just look at you. You’re ready to go back to France to do more research on Jeanne, but you won’t take the time to visit [our brother] Marc in New Mexico!”
While there is probably some truth in her observation, I think this is more than an identity quest. I feel sometimes as if I am obsessed about writing this story, that I have been chosen by Jeanne to take this journey. But why? Perhaps she wanted me to take my master’s degree in history and my high school French lessons off the back shelf to which I had relegated them decades ago. Perhaps she was unhappy with what has been written to date about the Filles du Roi, as either filled with too much romantic fiction or too many dry demographic numbers. Perhaps she believed I’d have the perseverance to ferret out the facts, get them straight, and tell her story the right way. Perhaps she did indeed want to spur me on to connect with my French roots. Or perhaps she just wanted to take my imagination for a ride. For whatever reason, she continues to gently prod me on (sometimes not so gently). She will not let me go, and I refuse to abandon her as well.