Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Reader's Diary #1088- Susan Haley: Petitot

Susan Haley's Petitot is historical fiction. However, the more I read about the book online, the less and less fiction it all seemed. Petitot takes its name from a Catholic priest who came to the Northwest Territories, mostly on a conversion mission, in the mid-late 1800s. He suffered from bouts of insanity, molested children under his care, and wound up marrying a Metis woman in Saskatchewan. He was later forcibly taken by another priest to an asylum in Montreal, returning to France, and this part is confusing, but I believe was ex-communicated and re-instated on a few separate occasions. He was praised, even after his death, for his exploration and linguistic research. I had never heard of Petitot before, and thought he was a creation of Haley's imagination. Turns out, however, that he was very much real. However, when you research about him online, it becomes obvious very quickly that he's a controversial figure. A lot of articles either ignore the sexual abuse allegations and mental health issues altogether or at the very least brush it over. A line on his Wikipedia page simply states, "The late 1860s were troublesome years."

The frame story of Petitot comes by way of a man named Marcus who, after separating from his wife, comes to the north in the late 1990s to teach. He has quite a difficult time, with his job and with his sexual identity. It is also here that Marcus first comes upon the name Emile Petitot and becomes somewhat obsessed by him. However, the more he discovers, the more he struggles with the horrible legacy that Petitot has left behind. But even this, it turns out, has more more truth in it than I'd first realized. Reading this interview with Haley, it seems that Marcus's path and conclusions weren't a great deal different than her own.

It's certainly an intriguing story, with solidly crafted sentences, and heavy but still relevant themes: hero-worship, cross-cultural misunderstandings, good intentions vs. colonialism, legacies, and a whole lot more. I wish, however, that I could have taken to Marcus more than I did. Far too often he came across as sanctimonious and at the end, I know his personal journey was meant to be profound, but for the life of me, I'm not sure why or what lasting effect it was all supposed to have had on him. There's a fine line between vague and subtle, and I'm far more tolerant of the latter (I'd even prefer it to heavy-handed). I'm still undecided where I feel this book fits in. If you can get a book club to to go for a book with such uncomfortable topics, this would be a great one to discuss.


James Chester said...

Still, sounds interesting. You have me wanting to read this one. I do know that it was common to make allegations of sexual deviance against people you wanted to undermine back in the day. Still is, I guess, if you believe Julian Aussange. (spelling?)

John Mutford said...

James: It's certainly an intriguing book (and character). Who knows what the truth is at this point, I suppose. But in any case, it's sadly topical.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

"The late 1860s were troublesome years." It's interesting how understated one can be, when one wants.
This book sounds worth reading, if only for the opportunity to expand that Wikipedia page.