A Book Review by Juliana L’Heureux
Just below the cultural surface of Maine's 400 years of Franco-American history are feelings of discrimination experienced by many of our French-speaking ancestors. Franco-Americans, by nature, are modest when discussing the past; but before long, stories begin to scratch the surface of an otherwise "joie de vivre" attitude.
Speaking French in an English-speaking country during the last century put the Franco-American immigrant from Canada at a social disadvantage. French-Canadian immigrants frequently were stereotyped negatively as "frogs." Discrimination against the French reached a climax in the early part of the 20th century, around 1920, when the masked Klu Klux Klan was organizing in Maine. The Klan's cross burnings against the Catholic Franco-Americans were well-documented during this bleak period in Maine's history.
Biddeford writer and professor emeritus Norman Beaupre writes with bittersweet emotions about being a part of Maine's Franco-American culture, based upon his experiences. Beaupre is a rare writer, comfortable composing prose in both French and English. His books are sometimes autobiographical, like the French novel, Le Petit Mangeur de Fleurs (The Little Flower Eater), or poetic, like Lumineau.
Beaupre tackles the complicated concepts of ethnicity and class discrimination in his newest English-language novel, Marginal Enemies. There's lots of sociological material to work with in Beaupre's creative effort to bring German and French, two contrasting cultures, into the ethnic limelight.
As non-English-speaking cultures, the Germanics are on the opposite side of the discrimination spectrum from the Romance language French speakers; but Beaupre also includes some English-speaking Irish in the book's diverse mix. Meanwhile, the novel tackles Franco-American discrimination in a take-no-prisoners story.
Marginal Enemies reveals something for nearly every person with a strong sense of ethnic identity. It's a story about community and the families living in two different countries during World War II, when ethnicity and nationalism were considered patriotic. This novel is appealing for descendents of those claiming European heritage, beginning with the melting pot of the late 19th or early 20th centuries and the immigrants who formed communities in America's industrial Northeast. There are compelling flashbacks to life growing up poor in communities where class distinction was intense between the haves and have-nots.
In the novel, the story's German family in Berlin and the French family in New England are supposed to be enemies who are at war with one another. Beaupre cleverly designs a story whereby the entire concept of an enemy is turned inside out. Exactly who or what are enemies, anyway? Some people are enemies if they live in countries at war with one another; but they can be friends if the same cultures drink socially together in their affable local bar.
Beaupre creates unlikely alliances among his characters. He reminds us what it was like growing up during a time when Adolph Hitler was in the process of eliminating anybody considered undesirable (like the Gypsies) or Jewish. Some people, like Beaupre's character and German European hero, Morgen's father, Lukas, risked defying the Nazis by trying to do something to help. Can a German who deserted his country in the face of Nazism really be our enemy? It's a hard-hitting concept.
Beaupre invites readers to grapple with this and other issues in his
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Copyright © 2005, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux