Au Revoir, L'Acadie

A Book Review by Juliana L’Heureux

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A Commentary on the Novel by William Brennan

A labor relations rivalry, frequently skirted by Franco-American and Irish history texts, is directly portrayed in a new novel written by William Brennan.

Brennan's Au Revoir, L'Acadie reveals an oftentimes mistrusting ethnic relationship between the Irish and French-Canadian immigrants who worked in New England mill towns and became union organizers during in the mid-1930s.

Evidence of the history Brennan describes is seen in the huge and empty
ill buildings imposed on the New England landscape in cities like Lowell, MA, or Manchester, NH and Woonsocket, RI.

Brennan creates a fictional town named Millbank, Mass., where French and Irish families live in distinctly different cultures and sheltered neighborhoods. Of course, the novel's location could be any one of New England's industrial communities. Au Revoir, L'Acadie is the kind of a hard hitting story your grandfather might tell you if he worked in the mills. It's a tough memoir to transcribe into typically nostalgic Irish and French-Canadian heritages - the picture isn't always lovely.

Let's not forget the difficult lives led by the tens of thousands of men and women workers who endured 10 hours a day laboring in the now vacant mill buildings. "We were ready to die, or murder to get away from the stupid mill. It's no life.," says a lead character Evelyn LaBonte. The formidable mill structures are still evident in Maine communities like Sanford, Biddeford, Waterville, Westbrook and others. Franco-Americans comprised a huge percentage of the New England mill workforce during the 1930s. Irish immigrants preceded the French-Canadian workers. Eventually, the two different ethnic groups, united by Roman Catholicism but separated by their French and English languages, were competing for jobs and power in New England's 1930s labor movements.

Au Revoir, L'Acadie, takes place during The Great Depressions, when Irish labor leaders tried to unite the French-Canadian workers with them into a union because the mills were failing and they worried about loosing their jobs.

Brennan reveals unflattering examples about the Irish clergy, who dominated Roman Catholic parishes in New England, and who engaged in efforts to undermine French and Irish cooperation during the tumultuous labor organizational efforts. Few words are wasted in describing the covert methods used by the Irish clergy to influence efforts against the French-Canadians in the mills.

One character, Father Gerrity, is portrayed as an influential anti-French cleric who stereotypes French Canadians as "untrustworthy" because they threaten Irish prestige with the mill owners. Even the extraordinary act of excommunication, or prohitibiting Roman Catholics from receiving the Sacraments, was threatened by the clergy as punishment for those who helped the union's collaborations.

Reading Au Revoir, L'Acadie provides a rare opportunity for frank discussion about the ethnic strife and prejudices between two competing ethnic groups during a time in the 19th century when both sides had much to gain and loose from the outcomes of their collective actions.

I recommend the novel for sociology students, particularly, for Elder Hostel programs where some of the senior students were likely involved in the very history Brennan describes.

Brennan is a talented story teller who puts his strong characters up close and personal with the reader. He was inspired to write Au Revoir, L'Acadie after visiting to the Museum of Work & Culture in Woonsocket, RI, an exhibit depicting the daily life of Franco-American mill workers.

An interesting non-fiction companion to read along with Au Revoir, L'Acadie is "The Belles of New England", by Scarborough resident William Moran.

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Copyright 2004, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux