In her 1884 volume “Legends of le Détroit,” Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin details a brief meeting between Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the 17th-century Frenchman who would go on to found the city of Detroit, and a woman of bizarre appearance identified as Mere Minique, La Sorciere. The woman, a fortune teller, informed Cadillac that he would go on to found a great city, but that “dark clouds are arising” for him. “Beware of all undue ambition,” Hamlin quotes the soothsayer as warning, “it will mar all your plans.”
Toronto writer Anna Maxymiw uses this anecdote — until now, little more than a footnote in the French colonial history of North America — as the springboard for her debut novel. She does so by focusing not on the upper-class Frenchman whose name would go down in automotive history, but on Minique herself.
Not much is known about Minique beyond the brief mention in Hamlin’s book — Maxymiw admits in an author’s note not being able to ascertain for sure whether the fortune teller actually existed. “Minique” is therefore both an act of feminist reclamation and a feat of imagination, positing a complete history for the woman, including coming of age in colonial Montreal under the eyes of her frequently absent father, a coureur de bois, her stern Tante Marie , and Father Etienne, the fire-and-brimstone spouting local priest.
After her best friend succumbs to a deadly fever, Minique finds herself adrift and comes under the tutelage of Anne, an aubergiste who has been acquitted at court of witchcraft. Anne counsels the adolescent Minique in the making of herbal remedies and other tinctures — including a hallucinogenic paste made with cannabis and poppy juice — eventually bequeathing the young woman the knowledge contained in her secret grimoire.
All of this occurs before Cadillac is even introduced more than halfway through the novel. By the time he appears, Minique has fled the settlement of Montreal for a remote cabin in the wilderness, where she lives alone and earns her living selling potions to settlers who make the arduous journey to her door.
The two halves of the book — the first detailing Minique’s younger years in Montreal, the second focusing on the increasingly tempestuous relationship between Minique and Cadillac — do not sit entirely comfortably together. The pace and focus of the Montreal sections are necessarily more diffuse and inconsistent, whereas the sections that zoom in on Minique and Cadillac appear overcharged by comparison. Sentimentality threatens to overtake these latter sections: “In the silence,” Maxymiw writes, “they are just a woman and a man, not two figureheads of two different worlds.” Elsewhere, Cadillac is described as “warm, like he cradle fire in his hips and heart.”
This is in contrast to traditional CanLit tropes that appear peppered throughout the first 150 pages — the coureurs des bois and filles du roi peopling scenes of settlers struggling in “this dire land” with its “weight of winter.” Maxymiw has a tendency to fall back on clichés — “she owns the place,” “pulls her up short,” “keeps his ear to the ground,” “she digs in her heels,” “looking the worse for wear” — that lend this historical fiction a syntax a bit too modern to be entirely immersive.
That said, Maxymiw has a strong eye for patterns of metaphor: the color red is a leitmotif in the novel, most particularly with regard to the legendary “nain rouge,” a mythological red imp, and the red ribbon in Anne’s braid, which contains implications of Little Red Riding Hood. The fairy tale is profound in Minique’s eventual retreat to the woods to live, and in the imagery of wolves that carries throughout the book.
Predation is a key facet of Minique’s story: men preying on women, settlers preying on the Iroquois and the Mohawk, the histrionic Father Etienne preying on so-called heathens and witches. Though by the climax of the novel, as Minique’s strength and determination come to the fore, the lupine association gets inverted and the directive “chercher le loup,” which refers to one thing at the beginning, is shown to refer to something else altogether by the end.
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