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Black Robe – Brian Moore

 
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Posted September 2, 2016 by

 

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Reviewed by: Dave        Date: 20 February 2002

“Heart of Darkness” in North American snow.

Discussing Black Robe, the author said:

“…I’d never written a book like this before. I didn’t want to write an historical novel because I don’t particularly like historical novels… I wanted to write this as a tale. I thought of it in terms of authors I admire, like Conrad. I thought of Heart of Darkness, a tale, a journey into an unknown destination, to an unknown ending.”

He was inspired to write Black Robe through his own experience of the vast Canadian landscape, the severe winter climate, and his own travels up and down the St. Lawrence River. His discovery of American historian Francis Parkman’s study entitled “The Jesuits in North America” led Moore on a quest of further research, and soon he began to wonder… what if he had been fool enough to become a Jesuit and land himself in this Canadian wilderness, surrounded by people who seemed highly intelligent and terrifying all at once, and near impossible to convert? Black Robe was born.

blackrobeIt is set in the early seventeenth century. The zealous Jesuit missionary Father Laforgue must make a perilous journey up the Ottawa River to a remote outpost in order to to relieve an ailing priest of his duties there. After receiving permission from the Commandant, who is none other than Samuel Champlain, Laforgue sets off for Ihonatiria with his young apprentice Daniel Davost, and a convoy of canoes piloted by the native Algonkin guides. The trip proves to be even more perilous than was anticipated and Moore’s tale becomes an experiment in bringing the character of the committed priest Laforgue to the limits of his beliefs and his ability to endure. And it pains him to watch Daniel’s own spiritual disintegration.

This tale is superb in how it shows the clash of these two almost infinitely different cultures… the European Christian (and more specifically “Catholic”) proselytizing mentality face to face with the Native belief in harmony with nature. One of the “Savages” sums up their opinion of Laforgue by saying “…listen Blackrobe. I am speaking against you today. You and your god do not suit our people. Your ways are not our ways. If we adopt them we will be neither Norman nor Huron. And soon our enemies will know our weakness and wipe us from the earth.” These natives live by relying on the interpretation of their dreams and by the forest speaking to them etc., things which the Jesuits considered useless or foolish, and a result of ignorance. But Moore is brilliant in showing how the natives saw the Jesuit ways as being equally mysterious and ridiculous (especially the whole idea of the Eucharist, how they viewed it as cannibalism. They called baptism the “water sorcery”). So everything about the natives that seemed to be based on a sort of primitive superstition was reciprocated in their perception of Jesuit practises and rituals. In this book we meet the Huron, the Iroquois, and the Algonkin as a handsome, brave, warlike, incredibly cruel people, who were in no way dependent on the white man and, in fact, judged him to be their physical and mental inferior. And we meet the Blackrobes, who willingly flung themselves into the midst of this culture, and unlike Conrad’s exploitive colonialists, came not for the purpose of economic and political conquest, but for religious conversion of those whom they called “the Savages.”

One textual note: There is an immense amount of profanity in Black Robe, enough to warn the sqeamish about. According to the author’s preface, the obscene language used by the natives at that time in history was a form of rough banter and was not intended to give offense.

Black Robe – Brian Moore – 1985

Black Robe: A Novel
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