Novelist and poet Claude Le Bouthillier has drawn on his Acadian and New Brunswick heritage to create Phantom Ships . First published in 1989 as Le Feu du Mauvais Temps, it gives an account of the end of the French Empire in Canada as experienced by the author’s own ancestor, Joseph Le Bouthillier. It is a historical novel with epic aspirations, and it has received both the Champlain Prize and the France-Acadie Prize for its contribution in promoting Acadian culture and history.
Amid a rather sprawling story, Joseph holds our focus, more or less. A young Canadien, he abandons his home in Quebec for the comparative wilderness of Acadia to try to forget a lost love. He settles in a Mi’kmaq village near the Bay of Chaleurs and marries into a Métis family. Through him and his family, we relive the great events from 1740 to 1763: the Seven Years War, the fall of Louisburg, the deportation of the Acadians, the fall of Quebec, and the Peace of Paris.
The scope of the book is immense, leading to several problems in its execution. Trying to cover too much ground in too few pages, M. Le Bouthillier has constructed a narrative which often reads like a summary of a much more interesting story. He simply does not have enough space for either his plot or his characters to grow. Too much of the character development is done through telling instead of showing. Joseph, his healer wife Angelique, her father and the patriarch of the tribe, St. Jean, and the young Acadian exile Mathilde are intriguing, but they never emerge as three dimensional, full-bodied characters. They are defined by their characteristics, not by their lives. Worse still, most of the characters fail to find their consistent, authentic voices. At times, it seemed to me that the characters' only purpose was to make speeches about tolerance, the value of native culture and religion, and the importance of personal freedom.
In one scene, a young Métis man finds himself in a tavern and refused service. He cries out, while being evicted, "My people preached equality when your people were still living like barbarians!" These are without a doubt honourable concepts, but they seem jarringly out of place in a novel set in the mid-eighteenth century.
The author is also a poet, and the best parts of the novel are where the poet predominates. The most memorable moment for me had nothing to do with plot or character development. It was just a vignette of humanity: the picture of an ancient Acadian woman stooping to gather a handful of soil to take with her into exile. Indeed, the strength of the book lies in the story of the deportation. It is here that Phantom Ships
does what good historical fiction is supposed to do: it makes us feel in our hearts what we already know in our heads. It is one thing to know the number of Acadians deported, the destinations to which they were sent, and the numbers that died. It is another to relive the wrenching apart of families and experience the pitiable living conditions of those that managed to evade the edict and eked out a sustenance-based existence in the woods of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
This English translation by Susan Ouriou, which makes M. Le Bouthillier’s original work available to a much wider audience, has been timed to coincide with the celebration of 400 years of French settlement in New Brunswick. It is of particular interest to Acadian readers, many of whom will find their own family names in the text. Cormier, Landry, Gaudet—these are just a few of the recognizable names that may spur their descendents to further research into this time and their own family connections. It is certainly a work of significant cultural and historical impact. As a novel, however, it never quite fulfills its potential. It is an ambitious work by a man of vision, but the ambition falls just short, and the vision, while obvious, is never quite realized.