Family Secrets


by David Plante
Ticknor and Fields, 346 pp. (1994)

Born the sixth of seven brothers in a French-Canadian enclave of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1940, the writer David Plante is best known for his trilogy The Francoeur Family (1978–1982), a novelized memoir of childhood, adolescence, and early maturity. Told without fear of the humdrum and repetitious, the book’s achievement is its gradual and convincing creation of nine characters—father, mother, and seven sons—each highly individual but seen to be so in reaction and relation to one another.

Catholic and originally Francophone in a Protestant and overwhelmingly Anglophone world, the Francoeurs are torn by competing impulses, toward solidarity and security on the one hand, independence and risk on the other. The book opens with the stubborn, taciturn father, of part American Indian descent, choosing to go it alone and ignore a union strike call, a decision that will eventually lead to his dismissal and economic downfall. At the same time his wife is lamenting the fact that she has lost all independence in marriage and has to follow her husband’s lead in everything, though she admits having chosen him because she is weak herself and attracted to his protective strength. Unable to find a middle way between fear of family breakdown and desire for personal freedom, she descends through one panic attack after another into a state of near madness, a process Plante describes over five hundred and more pages with extenuating patience and precision.

Meantime, each brother distinguishes himself from the others through the nature of his response to the same conundrum: how to have a separate, independent life in the Anglophone world while remaining loyal to the old community and safe within it. The eldest son, Richard, leaves home but exactly follows his parents’ model, marrying a Catholic girl and producing a large family. More interestingly, the second son, Albert, becomes a fighter pilot, stationed far from home but always turning all his money and attention back toward the family, as if he were only away from them for their benefit. Staying single, he uses his relative wealth to put the younger brothers through college and pay the parents’ mortgage, while his intense religiosity, disturbingly combined with an evident pleasure in bombing missions, is coercively deployed to keep the family aware of their shared Catholic heritage, sometimes forcing them to their knees to pray together.

The third son, Edmond, yearns to leave home like his older brothers but is never courageous enough to stay away for more than a few weeks. Resentfully running small errands for everyone, he will grow into middle age playing with model trains and forming ever more ambiguous friendships with adolescent boys. Once again, it is not just the quality of the character study and occasional drama that is remarkable here, but also the sense Plante gives us of the shared family dynamic from which, over many years, each boy is emerging: Edmond and Albert are two sides of the same coin.

The author’s alter ego in the trilogy, Daniel, has the most complex response…

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