Tag: Canada

Napoleon in America

Napoleon in America

No, Napoleon didn’t actually make it to America, though it would’ve been interesting to see what happened!  That’s exactly what Shannon Selin’s book Napoleon in America imagines.  What if Napoleon had escaped his captors and ended up in the U.S.?  I can’t recommend the book highly enough.  It was the first fiction book I had read in years and it was so engrossing, fun, and creative.  As an American who loves Spanish/Latin American history as well as French culture, I found so many of my interests satisfied and engaged.  Shannon graciously agreed to answer some questions of mine about the book below, so take a look!

1. It seems to me that historical fiction is a tricky balancing act- finding elements of fantasy and creativity that have to seem somewhat plausible and rooted in some historical fact.  How do you find the right balance between fantasy and history?

I think the physical setting, the social customs and the details of daily life have to be depicted with reasonable historical accuracy. This helps the reader imagine the period and gives the novel an aura of plausibility. Since all of the characters in Napoleon in America are actual historical figures, I also tried to keep their words and actions consistent with my understanding of their personalities, as gleaned from my research. Within this scaffolding, the plot can be as fanciful as one wants to make it.

2. What kinds of sources did you use for your research for the book and what are some elements of the book that people might be surprised to find are true?

I started by reading biographies of Napoleon and the other major historical figures featured in the book. I also read about Napoleon’s time on St. Helena, and about the post-Napoleonic War years in Europe and North America. I then turned to relevant letters, diaries, memoirs, travellers’ accounts and newspapers of the time. Basically I read sources that helped me:

  • identify the possibilities and constraints Napoleon might have faced if he escaped from St. Helena and went to North America;
  • select people and events that might have been affected by such an adventure; and
  • imagine what it was like to be alive in the early 1820s in the places where the novel is set.

I delved into more esoteric topics as I was writing each scene, e.g., early 19th-century medical practices, the history of voodoo in New Orleans, the diplomacy surrounding the Congress of Verona.

One of the things that surprised me was the extent of the Bonaparte family’s connections with the United States. Napoleon’s brother Joseph really was living in New Jersey in 1821. Napoleon had an American nephew, Jerome Bonaparte (the son of Napoleon’s brother Jerome), who – as happens in Napoleon in America – was considered a potential husband for Joseph’s daughter Charlotte. Another nephew who appears in the book, Achille Murat (the son of Napoleon’s sister Caroline), also moved to the United States.

A number of Napoleonic officers fled to the United States after Napoleon’s 1815 abdication, which explains why so many show up to help him in the novel. Also, France really did invade Spain in 1823, and a group of men led by Colonel Charles Fabvier really did attempt to subvert the French troops at the Bidassoa River.

3. Your book imagines how the Quebecois may have supported Napoleon’s return to power- to what degree was this based on historical fact?  Was there Quebecois support for Napoleon during his reign?

One of the things I learned when I was researching Napoleon in America (and, as a Canadian, and the daughter of a history teacher, I feel rather guilty about not knowing this before) was that in 1805 some French Canadians wrote a petition to Napoleon asking him to help free them from British rule. This was a minority opinion, however. French Canadians were largely loyal British subjects, pro-Bourbon and anti-Napoleon. It was only after Napoleon’s death that general sympathy for him began to emerge in Quebec. I wrote an article about this. I also wrote a couple of short stories set in Quebec during the Napoleonic Wars, including one about that 1805 petition.

4. This was the first time in a long time that I’ve delved into a historical fiction book.  Since I so enjoyed your book, do you have any recommendations for similar books I might try out next (while I wait for your sequel!)?

I’m a great fan of Penelope Fitzgerald and her four historical fiction books are marvelous: Innocence (set in Italy in the 1950s), The Gate of Angels (Cambridge in 1912), The Beginning of Spring (pre-revolutionary Russia) and The Blue Flower (late 18th-century Germany). If you’d prefer to read more about Napoleon, see my blog post about Napoleon in historical fiction.

5. You’ve said that you’re in the middle of writing a sequel to the book.  Without giving anything away, can you give a hint of what we can expect next on Napoleon’s adventure?

Let’s just say that I’ve done a lot of reading about Mexico in the early 1820s, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing surrounding the Monroe Doctrine, and the 1824 US presidential election.


Historical fiction writer Shannon Selin is the author of Napoleon in America, which imagines what might have happened if Napoleon Bonaparte had escaped from exile on St. Helena and wound up in the United States in 1821. Shannon blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at shannonselin.com. She lives in Vancouver, Canada, where she is working on the next novel in her Napoleon series.

A Short History of Quebec

A Short History of Quebec

Recently I had the pleasure of reading A Short History of Quebec by Brian Young and John Dickinson.  It’s a great introduction to the history of the region and is filled with social history (the role of women, first nations, labor movement, etc) that may be overlooked by books more focused on politics.  Special thanks to Professor Young for granting me this interview:

1. If I’m correct, I believe both of you are anglophones.  How does this background influence your understanding of the region’s history?

Being ‘anglophones’ is just one factor in our makeup as historians of Quebec. John and I are of a generation born in the 1940s, we are males from middle class families, are parents, and we studied in the particular intellectual ambiance of Toronto. English speakers by birth both of us have been deeply involved in francophone society. John is perfectly bilingual, his children have French as their first language, and he spent his career in French at the Université de Montréal. In retirement, John lives in Brest, France. I trained first as a political historian with my consciousness of Quebec dating from the Pierre-Elliot Trudeau phenomenon of the 1960s. I taught at McGill University in Montreal from 1976, an institution that can be seen as a sort of litmus test of linguistic relations in Montreal. After my PhD and teaching in the U.S. of post Vietnam for six years, I came to Quebec to participate in a progressive, social democratic society, unique in North America, and one in which French was the ‘official’ language. I have been less at ease with events in Quebec since the second referendum on independence in 1995 and the ‘ethnic’ and conservative turn in Quebec politics.

2. As an American, I came in with the stereotype that Quebec had a definitively more progressive history than ours.  Yet in your book, you give a fascinating and nuanced picture of Quebecois society.  For example, women could vote in the early 1800s, but were then disenfranchised mid-century.  And taverns were restricted to men until 1979.  What is the most common misconception people have about Quebec’s history?

Whether one is referring to women’s, legal, or political history, Quebec has a distinct history that most North Americans ignore royally. Certainly, Quebec, historically dominated by the Catholic Church and a traditional elite, was, until the mid twentieth century, behind other North American jurisdictions in its labor, educational and social policies. In the past half century, it has leapfrogged on social issues like the welfare state, the environment, gay rights, women’s equality, right to die, low university tuition etc. Deindustrialization, dependence on equalization payments from more prosperous parts of Canada, periodic bouts of ethnocentrism, and the decline of Montreal, have hurt Quebec’s reputation. Americans have profound misconceptions about Quebec and Canada. Their neighbors to the north are certainly not dull. On their very doorstep, Americans can experience Quebec’s linguistic, cultural, and social experiment.

3. Your book details many economic/social issues (which I had known less about) as well as the better-known linguistic ones.  What is the relationship between language and the fight for social justice in Quebec history- how has one affected the other?

This question is at the very root of the Quebec question. Is a nationalist movement with a fixation on language inevitably conservative and prone to ethnic centrism? My own feeling is that Quebec vacillitates between a rich history of tolerance, ‘bonne ententism’, vibrant reception of immmigrants, and social justice and periodic episodes of nativism, fear, and mistrust of the ‘other’.

4. Your book reviews some of the pro-independence movements and politicians in Quebec.  Has there ever been a movement to reunite Quebec with France?  If not, why do you think an independence movement developed but not a reunification one?

The cession of New France to Britain in 1763 acted as a firewall isolating Quebec from the French Revolution, republicanism, and France’s vigorous assertion of laicitiy. As a result, Quebec developed in very different ways from France. Quebecers, although singularly secular, seem quite at ease with a crucifix over the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly and a dual educational and hospital system that reflects historic Catholic and Protestant communities. A strong independence movement has long existed in Quebec, Quebecers were enchanted with Charles de Gaulle’s ‘Vive le Québec libre’ declaration from the balcony of the Montreal City Hall in 1967, and sovereignty referendums were held in 1980 and 1995. In the latter, the ‘Yes’ received 49.2% of eligible votes and through the Parti Québécois independence remains a strong option. Visits to Paris and to the proverbial French ‘cousins’ remain a favorite destination. However, free trade with the United States, a ‘National’ Hockey League largely composed of American teams, Celine Dion who made her career in Las Vegas, and the attraction of Quebec ‘snowbirds’ to Florida rather than the Riviera, are indicative of Quebec’s integration as a North American society.

5. While the book focuses on Quebec, it also touches on the fate of francophones in the rest of Canada.  Are you optimistic about the survival of French-Canadian culture outside Quebec?

The future of linguistic minorities is hard to predict. Of the 1,067,000 Canadians of French mother tongue outside Quebec, most live in Ontario and New Brunswick where they represent sizeable minorities. Although they benefit from various federal and provincial programs in the educational, social, and cultural sectors, their survival in an English world is perhaps precarious. Two of my grandchildren are in francophone schools in the Toronto region: their schools are well-funded and excellent and they will become part of a bilingual citizenry.

6. I’m headed to Quebec this summer with my partner for vacation.  Besides this fantastic book, what other ones would you recommend I read to learn more about Quebec?  And for our trip, what are some “must-see” historic sites we should include on our itinerary?

How about a novel or two to set the stage for your trip to Quebec. In English, the works of Mordecai Richler are probably the best known but for popular life in francophone Montreal try Michel Tremblay’s The Blue Notebook or for an historical classic try Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska. Quebec films are another useful introduction to Quebec. Why not sample, Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine (1971); Deny Arcand’s Decline of the American Empire (1986), or Xavier Dolan’s recent Mommy (2014). For more academic treatments of Quebec history, I enjoyed Jack Little and Peter Gossage, An Illustrated History of Quebec and Denyse Baillargeon’s A Brief HIstory of Women in Quebec. The museums, historic sites, restaurants, and night life of Montreal and Quebec City make them the principal tourist destinations. In addition, why not get off the beaten track (see the Quebec government’s web site http://www.bonjourquebec.com/qc-en/accueil0.html) and travel along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City visiting the quarantine station at Grosse Île and the Reford Gardens (Jardin de Métis) at Grand-Métis. Close to Vermont, the region of the Eastern Townships around Sherbrooke has hidden historical treasures, delightful inns, and good food.

A native of Winnipeg Manitoba, Brian Young taught the social and institutional history of Quebec at McGill University, Montreal. Retired, he now divides his time between Montreal and Nice. His most recent book, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (2014), is Patrician Families and the Making of Quebec The Taschereaus and the McCords.

photo Briaan promenade cyclistesnm

Les juifs québécois: An interview with Professor Pierre Anctil

Les juifs québécois: An interview with Professor Pierre Anctil

My partner Peter and I are headed to Québec this summer to visit a close friend of his and also to just explore the region. I’m also excited to practice the French I’ve been learning in my lessons here in D.C.! I had the privilege recently to connect with Prof. Pierre Anctil of the University of Ottowa who specializes in the history of the Jews of Quebec. A lot of my questions were based off my reading of his article “A Community in Transition: the Jews of Montréal“. I am grateful for his time and thoughts, which you can find below:

1) A high percentage of Quebecois Jews go to Jewish Day Schools. What is the language policy of these schools and has this changed over the years?

In Québec access to school is regulated by the language in which the parents were educated – in Canada. So the following rule does not apply to Jews educated outside of Canada.

If educated in English in Canada – which is the case of most Ashkenazi Jews in Montréal, parents may send their children to English language schools in Québec. Jews who arrived in Montréal in 1978 – rarely Anglophones – must send their kids to French language schools. So each Jewish private school in Montréal has a French sector independent from its English sector.

All immigrants since 1978 must send their kids to French language schools.

2) This is a creative question, so feel free to speculate. How might history have been different if Jews had been placed in Francophone schools instead of Anglophone ones when they immigrated to Quebec?

History would have been indeed quite different. In such a situation I do not think that the like of a Mordecai Richler would have existed. Richler felt threatened by the rise of Francophone nationalism because he had been educated entirely in English in the Protestant school system of Montréal and could not communicate in French to his own Francophone compatriots. Today, the gap between French Canadians and Anglophone Jews has been bridged. But this would have taken place much earlier otherwise, say before WWII as opposed to during the eighties.

3) How has Sephardic immigration to Quebec changed the Jewish community (internally) and its relationship with the rest of Quebec (externally)?

A great deal. Sephardim were not perceived as Jews initially by French Canadians because they spoke their language. Sephardim also pushed the otherwise Ashkenazi Montréal Jewish community to open itself to the French presence, if only for their own sake. They also served as médiators between Anglo Jews and Francophones, and often found integration into Francophone Québec quite simple and easy.

4) Now that the Quebecois Jews are more likely to be bilingual (or even Francophone), do you see relationships building between the community and other Francophone Jews around the world (e.g. France, Belgium, Switzerland, Morocco, etc.)? If they haven’t done this yet, is this an opportunity they should take advantage of?

Yes, there is this tendency, definetly. There is also to be expected, because of the recent events, the likelyhood of a French Jewish immigration to Québec, a place where it is possible to be Jewish in French and have a career in that language.

5) I imagine there must be some smaller Jewish communities outside of Montreal in Quebec City or small towns. How are these communities different from the one in Montreal?

97% of Québec Jews live in the Montréal region. I will soon publish a book on Québec City Jews, celebrating 400 years of Québec City Jewish history, but their numbers was always very small – never more than 500 individuals.

6) Over the past 10 years there has been an increase in antisemitism in France leading to Jewish emigration. How has this impacted the Quebecois Jewish community?

See my answer on point 4. I am convinced that this will lead to an increased immigration in the long term, not to mention more interest for Québec on the part of French Jews.

7) What do you see in the future of the Quebecois Jewish community? Are you optimistic?

I am quite optimistic. There will always be a Jewish community here in the foreseeable future, but it will be quite different from the one that existed say 25 or 50 years ago.

Jews will be more integrated into the fabric of Québec francophone society. As I said in my article, Montréal is the only city in North America where organized Jews negotiated with the outside world in a language other than English. Perhaps in contradiction with other parts of North America, it is also my impression that Jews will be more religious here – although not visibly so to the outside – than elsewhere.

8) I’m visiting Quebec this summer with my partner for the first time- what are some “must-see” Jewish sites, experiences, or people?

Yes, you should visit the Jewish “campus” on Côte-Sainte-Catherine, where many Jewish cultural institutions are housed. I will be glad to be your guide. A tour of historic Jewish Montréal on Plateau Mont-Royal would also be worthwhile.


Pierre Anctil is a full professor at the department of history of the University of Ottawa, where he teaches contemporary Canadian history and Canadian Jewish history. He was the director of the Institute of Canadian Studies at the University of Ottawa from July 2004 until July 2008. Before that date, he was president of the Conseil des relations interculturelles of the Government of Québec, 2002-2003, and has held different positions in the Québec civil service in the domain of immigration (1991-2004). He was a guest researcher in 1999-2000 at Musée Pointe-à-Callière, for the conception of an exhibit on boulevard Saint-Laurent (2002) and for an international exhibition on the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls (2003). He was also director of the French Canadian Studies Program at McGill University (1988-1991) and researcher at the Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture (1980-1988).

He has written at length on the history of the Jewish community of Montréal and on the current debates on cultural pluralism in Montreal. Among his contributions are translations from Yiddish to French of memoirs written by Jewish immigrants to Montréal in the first half of the twentieth century. For the period of 2008-2010, he was awarded a Killam fellowship by the Canada Council of Arts for a research entitled: “Parcours migrant, parcours littéraire canadien, le poète yiddish Jacob-Isaac Segal”. He has published Trajectoires juives au Québec (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2010) and, in collaboration with Ira Robinson, Les communautés juives de Montréal, histoire et enjeux contemporains (Septentrion, 2010). In 2011 he co-directed with Howard Adelman a book entitled : Religion, Culture and the State, Reflections on the Bouchard-Taylor Report (University of Toronto Press). He has also authored a book entitled: Fais ce que dois. 60 éditoriaux pour comprendre Le Devoir sous Henri Bourassa, 1910-1932 (Septentrion, 2010), plus two others on the same topic. In the Fall of 2013: Soyons nos maîtres. 60 éditoriaux pour comprendre Le Devoir sous Georges Pelletier, 1932-1947 and in the fall of 2014 : À chacun ses Juifs. 60 éditoriaux pour comprendre la position du Devoir à l’égard des Juifs 1910-1947. He is also the author of a literary biography, that of Montreal Yiddish poet Jacob-Isaac Segal, entitled Jacob-Isaac Segal (1896-1954), un poète yiddish de Montréal et son milieu (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2012).