A Franco-American reflects on his heritage
Sat Jan 22 2005
American Ghosts: A Memoir
By David Plante
Beacon Press, 288 pages, $34.95I grew up in Aldenville, the French-Canadian enclave of Chicopee, Mass. I
spoke French until I entered kindergarten at l’ecole Ste-Jeanne-d’Arc, run by
les Soeurs de la Presentation de Marie. Morning mass was said in French. In
fact, one of the Sunday masses today is still done, partly, in French.
David Plante, of my father’s generation, was born and raised in a
French-Catholic parish in Providence, R.I., which felt to Plante like an
enclave, too, seemingly surrounded by Yankee New England.
Plante’s experience of his French-Canadian heritage and his Roman Catholicism
– that is, his struggles with his parents and God – is the heart of this memoir.
The early part of the book, the first third perhaps, tells of Plante’s early
life in Providence and Boston, where he attended college. Here we catch glimpses
of some of the ghosts that will haunt him throughout his life: his
silent-to-the-point-of-frustrating half-Quebecois, half-Blackfoot father; his
mother, lively and full of desires but kept down by her husband, the culture,
the times; and the God that is at the centre of their lives like a referee in a
boxing match, arms outstretched, keeping the combatants from each other’s soft
The book begins to take off when Plante escapes the confines of la paroisse.
Here, too, one of the book’s major themes – the split Plante feels at the very
centre of his being: between believer and non-believer, Canuck-Indian and
American, possessor and possessed – takes shape. As it takes shape, it becomes
the central point of the memoir.
Plante deals with the split by leaving the United States to live in Britain,
giving up his faith and devoting himself to a writing career, committing himself
to possessing details, images and connections. Many of these images, some
connected, some not, find themselves in these pages. They make up some of the
strongest writing in a book whose most engaging quality is the strength of the
writing, rooting it in the real, finding vitality in the visceral.
The most tense section of the book is his recounting of several episodes with
his friend Mary Gordon, a noted U.S. writer and devout Catholic. “Why don’t you
give in?” she asks in several ways. And Plante won’t, can’t.
“What I’m saying means something to you that you insist on denying but that
won’t be denied,” Gordon says.
“It’s impossible to give into something that doesn’t exist,” Plante says
“What you long for exists in the very longing for it,” Gordon responds.
The memoir’s denouement – the book arcs the way a novel does; all biography
is a construction, after all – comes when Plante, on an extended teaching
assignment at the Universite de Montreal, finally examines his Quebec roots.
This examination eventually takes him to La Rochelle, France, where the splits
repair. Plante finds what he was looking for, which is what he wasn’t looking
for – a truth about his parents and parentage, and a new understanding of God.