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The Flying Canoe by Roch Carrier

The Flying Canoe

by Roch Carrier

Other authors: Sheldon Cohen (Illustrator), Sheila Fischman (Translator)

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Based upon the Quebecois legend of La chasse-galerie, first recorded by Honoré Beauregard in 1892, The Flying Canoe is the story of a young French-Canadian boy who finds himself on a most unexpected aerial voyage one New Year's Eve. Working as an assistant in a remote lumber camp, eleven-year-old Baptiste misses him home and family, and jumps at the chance to join Tom Caribou's magical night-time flight home to the Beauce...

Sheldon Cohen's colorful pencil illustrations give Carrier's narrative extra excitement, enhancing the sense of holiday wonder. Folktale enthusiasts will thrill to this story, which combines European elements reminiscent of the Wild Hunt with indigenous First Nations traditions involving flying canoes. ( )
1 vote AbigailAdams26 | Jul 15, 2013 |
The legend of a flying canoe, of a group of voyageurs who make a pact with the Devil in order to visit their loved ones for New Years' Eve celebrations, is one of the most well-known folktales of French Canada. According to Roch Carrier (and as stated in the informative author's note), the legend has its roots in European folktales involving flying vessels, which were then combined with First Nations tales of magical, flying canoes. However, according to a Wikipedia article I read on the the legend of La Chasse-Galerie (the French term for The Flying Canoe), there might actually be a specific French folktale of a hunter condemned to fly through the air, followed by barking dogs, howling wolves etc. as punishment for daring to hunt on the Sabbath. This tale (which in turn is somewhat reminiscent of the Germanic legend of the Wild Hunt) was supposedly later combined with stories of pacts made with the Devil and First Nations legends featuring magical canoes. My LT friend Abigail has pointed out that many French fairy and folk tales feature the Devil as a major antagonist, often as an entity to be outsmarted, but sometimes actual pacts are made with the Devil himself. Stories and folktales depicting pacts made with the Devil are, of course, not a uniquely French phenomenon, nor are they only encountered in folk tales. They feature prominently in the legends surrounding Dr. Faustus, and while the original tales might be considered primarily folklore, Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust can by no means be called folk literature.

A common thread encountered in most tales involving pacts with the Devil is the description of stringent regulations, and although these rules might originally appear easy to follow, they usually end up broken, either condemning the unfortunate victims to Hell, or at least having them learn an often painful lesson. In most of the traditional versions of La Chasse-Galerie, the rules stipulate that the Devil will make the canoe fly, but in order to safeguard their immortal souls, the voyageurs may neither fly near a church steeple nor are they permitted to curse or take the Lord's name in vain. The voyageurs gladly agree to these seemingly easy to follow conditions, and on the way to the New Years' Eve festivities, are very prudent about following all of the imposed rules. However, they consume copious amounts of alcohol at the celebration, and on their way home, the drunken voyageurs progressively come closer and closer to breaking the rules, until finally, they curse, take the name of God in vain, fly too close to a church or engage in some other activity that renders their pact with the Devil null and void. In some of the tales, all of the men are taken by the Devil, in other versions, one individual survives, usually becoming either a monk or a religious hermit (his companions though, are usually condemned to Hell).

When one thinks of the morals and ideas behind this tale, the most obvious lesson is no doubt that one should not make pacts with the Devil, that bewitched and magical canoes are dangerous and that the Devil is a real, terrifying and powerful force. Of course, there is also the admonition against drunkeness and blasphemy. More troubling though (at least in my opinion) is the concept that a magical, flying canoe (a First Nations legend) must somehow be the work of the Devil. Similarly to how the old Germanic idea of the Wild Hunt (and with it, the old pagan deities of Europe) was turned into an instrument of the Devil during the Christianisation of Europe, First Nations legends of flying canoes seem to have suffered the same fate. And while this does in no way make me despise the French Canadian folktales of La Chasse-Galerie, it does give one cause to think. Actually, I tend to believe that many folk and fairy tales involving the Devil or devilish entities feature aspects of pre-Christian culture and lore being transformed into something sinister (likely because the missionaries, priests etc. were not able to entirely remove them from the culture and thought of the native population, but wanted to somehow negate them and their influence).

Roch Carrier's version of The Flying Canoe is a novel and refreshing retelling of the legend, mainly because of the fact that much of the negativity encountered in many of the more traditional versions has been changed, even removed. Tom Caribou's canoe is magical, but there is never any mention of an actual pact made with the Devil. In fact, it is actually left open as to who or what causes the canoe to fly. Is the canoe simply magical, is it guided by the Devil, or could it even be a miracle of God? Yes, the canoe is at one time called the Devil's Canoe, but some of the voyageurs believe that it is a divine miracle. In their recent work on Canadian picture books, Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children's Illustrated Books and Publishing, Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman state that Carrier claimed that he had a lot of trouble reinterpreting the flying canoe legend for a contemporary audience who generally no longer believes that the Devil is a real and terrifying threat or obstacle (p. 162-163). The question (which is also never answered) about who or what makes the canoe become airborne demonstrates the difficulties certain kinds of folktales (particularly those dealing with God, demons, the Devil and pacts forged with the latter) can pose for both modern authors attempting a retelling and modern audiences.

One of the aspects of Carrier's retelling of the flying canoe legend that I find immensely enjoyable is how he has managed to use certain events found in the traditional stories and basically turned them completely upside-down. Many French Canadians are very likely aware of the traditional story line of la Chasse-Galerie and that one of the main rules imposed by the Devil is that the voyageurs are not to fly the canoe anywhere near a church steeple. Thus, it is vastly amusing that in Montreal, Tom Caribou deliberately guides the canoe through a small gap between the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral, thus defying both God and the Devil and certainly (at least to a point) questioning the power, if not the actual existence of both. And when the travelers encounter a fierce snowstorm, it is the thought of their families, of their loved ones which keeps the canoe safely adrift in the air. In many of the traditional versions of the tale, this snowstorm occurs on the way back, and it is often precisely that fateful event which finally makes the voyageurs break their pact with the Devil, causing them to swear, to take God's name in vain (in some versions, even mentioning the name of God is enough to break the pact).

There is also, of course, the question as to what happens to Baptiste's companions, after they abandon him and the canoe to go looking for a tavern in order to slake their thirst. As mentioned previously, the more traditional versions of this folktale usually have most, and sometimes all of the voyageurs being taken by the Devil (or it is assumed that they have been taken by the Devil). Carrier's retelling, however, never does indicate the fate of Baptiste's traveling companions. There is certainly no indication that Tom Caribou and the others have succumbed to the Devil, or that they have made or broken a pact with the Devil. Baptiste's traveling companions have, however, broken their pact of friendship with Baptiste by abandoning him in the cold, by forcing him to guard the canoe while they go drinking. Carrier definitely indicates criticism of the adult voyageurs, who would abandon a child in the cold, or force a child to wait in the cold simply so they could go to a bar or pub and enjoy themselves.

Finally, Roch Carrier's retelling of the flying canoe folktale also has a feeling of not only fantasy, but also of a certain amount of disbelief. There is almost a dream-like quality to the entire tale, and one cannot help but wonder, wether Baptiste really experienced this or wether it was just a dream or wishful thinking. I really enjoyed this aspect of the tale, as there is enough of an element of fantasy to satisfy our love and desire for and of the magical and mysterious, while at the same time also including disbelief and skepticism. The latter allows for both humour and questions, and I think it is this combination of the magical with skepticism that allows Roch Carrier's retelling of La Chasse-Galerie to be enjoyable for modern readers, for modern audiences.

As for the narrative itself, I agree with my lT friend Lisa's statement that this is a rather text-heavy picture book, and that the font size is certainly a bit too small for younger children just learning to read by themselves. I think that if the text is to be read aloud, the story is quite suitable for both younger and older children. However, if the book is to be independently read, the length of the text, combined with a sometimes rather advanced vocabulary, makes Carrier's The Flying Canoe more suitable for children above the age of eight or nine.

As for the illustrations by Sheldon Cohen, I have to admit that while I find these both colourful and descriptive, it did take me a while to get used to the rather garish colours. I love the details and the often amusing little touches (like the statue of an angel seemingly waving to the voyageurs in Montreal, which on closer scrutiny looks more like an advertising gimmick, as right below the angel there is a sign promoting a local market). On the whole, Sheldon Cohen's illustrations complement Roch Carrier's narrative very well, but they did not immediately "wow" me, they did not cause immediate enjoyment (my enjoyment came slowly, after having gotten used to the brightly garish colours). I would recommend this book to anyone interested in French Canadian folktales, especially to those for whom some of the more traditional tales might appear too negative, too fraught with images of the Devil or the devilish. Carrier has effectively retold a traditionally negative, even spooky folktale, in which magic does occur, but where the Devil, the uncanny is certainly wondered at and even negated to a point. ( )
1 vote gundulabaehre | Mar 31, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Roch Carrierprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cohen, SheldonIllustratorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fischman, SheilaTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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A retelling of a traditional French-Canadian tale in which eight homesick lumberjacks board a magical canoe that takes them home in time to usher in the New Year.

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Tundra Books

2 editions of this book were published by Tundra Books.

Editions: 0887766366, 0887766358

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