Woe, Canada

Girl of the north country: Lynn Coady
Christy Ann Conlin
Lynn Coady
Saints of Big Harbour
Houghton Mifflin

As recently as 1928, Minneapolis French-kissed the frogs. To elaborate on that thought

un peu

: That year marked the end of L'Écho de l'Ouest, a four-page French newspaper published by a parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes church (the old cathedral on the hill, around the corner from Nye's). For another decade or two after that, the modest church continued to operate the only French Catholic school in the city. Our Lady still peddles some Gallic meat pies, but any vital French tradition and culture is gone from the Cities now. It's gone from the rest of the country, too. And though I'm as Francophobic as any Godard-hating man in the United States of Kiss My Ass, I must admit that something was lost when our voyageur culture melted into the mainstream.

Like hockey brawls. The Acadian culture in Lynn Coady's novel Saints of Big Harbour is a cult of the puck. Yeah, some hockey gets played in Minnesota. But Coady's "carnival of violence" makes our Mighty Ducks look chickenshit. Before any showdown, her fictional Nova Scotia town of Big Harbour partakes in some ceremonial window smashing and street beatings. But it's the description of the adult men icing their brains on rum and coffee that captures the dark ritual of the sport. They do it with care, pulling off gloves, unscrewing the cap, replacing each sip of coffee with a splash of hooch. Thus prepared to appreciate the game properly, a man will invite the ref over to the glass and inform him, "I'll rip your legs off."

Another thing we've lost: The name Guy. Rhymes with pee. Fifteen-year-old Guy Boucher (doesn't rhyme with moocher) and his ramshackle house on the edge of town are at the center of Saints of Big Harbour. He's a fine addition to the annals of alienation, embarrassed by himself, his French Canadian family, their backwardness, his social ineptitude, and just about anything else that's handy. But misery in this grimy town never drinks alone. In scenes full of comic folly and palpable pain, the novel jumps from house to house (and beer to beer)--from outsider Guy to his raging and self-pitying uncle Isadore, to Isadore's draft-dodging American bottle buddy Alison, to the tavern owner and politico Leland.

Coady loosely builds her story around a botched high school crush that turns into hysterical accusations of sexual assault (a situation the Canadians don't call a "Saskatoon Split," but should). And her grasp of the trials of friendship and family is a thing to behold. But for this 'Nuck-sympathizer, it's the semi-exotic sociology that distinguishes the book from its American cousins. The early-'80s backwater of Nova Scotia--where the middle class has lost its taste for bush meat, yet TV still has its holdouts--is probably a lost world. Though Guy can't wait to escape, for my part, I miss it--even though Big Harbour is the closest I'll ever get to being there.

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