“A Distinct Alien Race”

I usually use this site to post brief updates about my own work, but today I wanted to share a longer post about David Vermette’s A Distinct Alien Race, a new book about Franco-American life in New England.

It has been one of the unexpected twists of my adult life that my creative work has so often returned to the exploration of my own heritage. A series of accidents, mostly happy, including unexpected job offers, my transnational marriage, and some well-timed encounters with a few important books, turned me toward research and deeper contemplation of both Franco-American history and culture, and ancestry and ethnic identity more generally.

If the popularity of genealogy websites and television programs, DNA tests, and their corporate spin-offs are any indication, these interests are hardly unique to me. White North Americans in particular, whether in the U.S. or Canada, often reject any attempt to give historical context to their place in society and bristle at the suggestion that the historical facts of their ancestry may have some bearing on the contours of their present-day lives. Nonetheless many are eager to unearth their ancestry on a private, individual basis, preferring the apparently clean veneer of science to the muddier lens of history. This paradox fascinates me. Even while many of us are derisive about so-called “identity politics,” we still seem drawn to the possibility of defining ourselves by community or culture in a way that whiteness does not offer.

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When I began to explore my own Franco-American ancestry, I felt a sense of disconnection to my origins that I now think is common. The word “piecework” ended up in the title of my first solo show in part to honour the work of my forbearers who worked in textile industry, but also because making the show sometimes felt like making something from nothing, gathering impulses, intuitions, vague memories and feelings, to see whether they could accumulate into something that actually existed. That desire for something concrete might be satisfied in some people by opening their DNA results to see a map with impressive colours and percentages. For me, it was satisfied more gradually, by touring the show, talking with people about their families and memories, and learning from others who are trying to understand their own relationship with the past. I have grown to see the ways in which my cultural background continues to express itself through me and the culture of my family. These discoveries have been affirmed as I have grown closer to a Franco-American community and seen how the experiences of others resonate with my own. For me, this powerful experience of coming to understand my relationships with my ancestors, and myself as their descendant, could never have been supplied by a simple (and reductive) DNA test.

Reading David Vermette’s new book, A Distinct Alien Race, I have been struck by a similar feeling of affirmation, a resonance that takes place where we are able to connect the personal with the collective. I’ve met Vermette through a gathering of Franco-American artists and scholars that we have both attended in Orono, Maine, and I heard him read portions of the manuscript as he worked to adapt his long-term blog project into a volume for publication. On those occasions I was struck by the ease with which he is able to organize data-dense material and interpret it into natural and compelling prose. As a non-fiction writer, he has a kind of narrative patience I greatly admire, an ability to make his argument with a light touch, through the strength of his research and writing rather than with explicit or bellicose assertions. His book has these same strengths. Here, he makes dense and sometimes dry material digestible and even inviting, and he is a persuasive and entertaining storyteller. A Distinct Alien Race is a great gift to those of us with Franco-American ancestry, and to other readers it offers a thorough introduction to a large but often invisible ethnic group that has shaped New England and the U.S. more generally.

Vermette uses Brunswick, vermetteMaine, and its Cabot Mill as his case study, showing the pivotal role the textile industry played in shaping the region after the Civil War. But while he plants his feet in Brunswick (where his own family planted roots more than a century ago), his perspective is broader. He does not generalize from his own family’s experience, but rather turns to other New England communities for both corroboration and contrast. His research is staggering, particularly since it was done outside of academia, without institutional support. Using census data, labor statistics, government reports, church records, historical newspapers, and other documents, he draws a colorful and dimensional picture of the textile industry in New England and how its French-Canadian workforce shaped the region’s economy and culture. In the process, he dispels stereotypes and generalizations about French-heritage peoples that have persisted in New England for centuries, digging into all kinds of data to shape a fuller picture of what brought French-Canadians south and why they stayed.

Those of us with Franco-American ancestry know through family lore where our families came from and how they lived, but through Vermette’s impeccable research and writing, our individual families become visible as part of a people, as well as a major migration, and we come to understand the political and economic forces that influenced their lives and choices. He also draws powerful parallels between the immigration rhetoric of today and yesteryear, capturing the eery similarities between the xenophobic anger and anxiety directed at refugees and migrants today and those leveled against our ancestors by the hand-wringing “patriots” of their day.

These comparisons, though unmistakable, are made with a light touch. Vermette’s treatment of difficult themes, such as discrimination and race, is delicate but unflinching, and clarifies how the goalposts of racial identity in the U.S. are constantly shifting. He rarely settles for simple explanations, and chronicles the ways in which the Anglo-American elite have enforced social hierarchies since the very earliest days of the American republic while acknowledging that such hierarchies are nuanced and unstable. While I don’t think he ever uses the term “intersectionality,” his work often embodies it, making room for the differing experiences and acknowledging the variety of experiences within the Franco community, indeed even within individual families.

If Vermette makes clear what seemed “alien” about Francos, he is also able to articulate much of what made them “distinct.” While he does compare the canadien immigrant experience to those of other groups now white-identified (the Irish, Italian, or Polish come to mind), he largely defines the Franco-American experience on its own terms, tracing their evolution as a distinct group from their Canadian relations and painting a portrait of a people who developed their own culture and identity — and continue to do so. Indeed, what is truly impressive about the book is how full a picture emerges of a group that often seems to lack definition. The last few chapters on New England’s present-day Franco communities make clear that culture persists and continues to evolve, however invisible it may often continue to be.

What strikes me perhaps most strongly about A Distinct Alien Race is the power of a history written from within the group being documented. Many of the books I have read on Franco-American history were written by Canadian authors, who often perceive us to be failed or fallen quebecoises, nationalist cautionary tales. Some other histories focus so determinedly on a single community that they fail to resonate further. But here, Vermette is engaged in a larger project, not just recording the history of the Cabot Mill, but using the experience of his own ancestors who labored there to piece together an image of a culture and community that has its roots in the earliest days of European colonialism and continues to evolve today. He makes Franco-Americans visible in a way that cannot be easily undone. While acknowledging that most Franco-Americans would probably not even self-identify as such, Vermette traces the outlines of a culture and affirms its existence, which is this book’s greatest contribution to those of us with Franco-American ancestry. To other readers, it makes an important and corrective contribution to the history of the French-heritage peoples of North America. I hope it finds a large readership on both sides of the border.

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