Reviewed by David Maclaine
I came across Black Robe after I had seen the faithful film adaptation of Moore's novel. Both convey the essence of this taut tale of a perilous journey along the northern waterways of North America as native guides try to deliver a young Jesuit to a distant mission. The novel is set in a crucial period in the seventeenth century when the tiny French colonies on the St. Lawrence Seaway were sending out missionaries to convert the region’s tribes and found themselves drawn into inter-tribal conflicts. Those who have not read Francis Parkman’s masterful survey France and England in North America may be inspired to give that rich history a try after enjoying this finely-crafted look at how cultures clashed in a beautiful but demanding landscape. This swift-paced book takes only a little longer to read than it takes to watch the film, and it provides a rich extra dimension because it can offer a direct view of the characters’ inner lives, including their sharply contrasting attitudes toward sex, dreams and destiny. In the young priest Laforgue and the youth, Daniel, who assists him, we see two different approaches to immersion in a new culture, one that yields to temptation and gains glimpses of understanding, another wrapped in a belief system that can scarcely cope with a world that makes a mockery of viewpoint.
By the end of the journey come extreme tests of faith and courage, culminating in a bitter look at how the Huron nation met its doom. This is not a tale that fits easily into modern clichés about the clash of European and American peoples; it presents an unflinching view of the vicious warfare and torture the aggressive Iroquois inflicted on their enemies, as well as the devastating horror the newcomers added to the mix. But through the personal crises of Black Robe’s characters the reader is drawn deep into the heart of a great historical tragedy. (1985, 246 pages)More about Black Robe at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
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