Posted: Monday December 16, 2019
“Wanderers. All of them. All the Desrosiers, never satisfied, always searching elsewhere for something better …”
Renowned Québec author Michel Tremblay’s Desrosiers Diaspora series spans the North American continent in the early years of the twentieth century. In nine linked books, this 1,400-page family saga provides the backstory for some of Tremblay’s best-loved characters, particularly Rhéauna, known as Nana, who later becomes the eponymous character in Tremblay’s award-winning first novel, The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant, and who is based on Tremblay’s own mother. The Desrosiers Diaspora follows Nana and the other remarkable Desrosiers women, including Nana’s grandmother, Joséphine, and her mother and aunts, Maria, Teena, and Tittite, as they leave and return to the tiny village of Sainte-Maria-de-Saskatchewan, dispersing to Rhode Island, Montréal, Ottawa, and Duhamel in the Laurentians. In Tremblay’s vivid, headlong prose, with its meticulously observed moments both large and small, the Desrosiers’ tumultuous and entwined lives are revealed as occasionally happy, often cruel and impulsive.
The first four volumes of the Desrosiers Diaspora series have been translated into English by Sheila Fischman and Linda Gaboriau and published by Talonbooks. English translations of novels five through nine are forthcoming. In French, they were published by Leméac Éditeur.
In the first volume, Crossing the Continent, we find Nana living with her two younger sisters, Béa and Alice, on her maternal grandparents’ farm in Sainte-Maria-de-Saskatchewan, a francophone Catholic enclave of two hundred souls. At the age of ten, amid swaying fields of wheat under the idyllic prairie sky, Nana is suddenly called by her mother, Maria, whom she hasn’t seen in five years and who now lives in Montréal, to come “home” and help take care of her new baby brother. So it is that Nana embarks alone on an epic train journey through Regina, Winnipeg, and Ottawa, on which she encounters a dizzying array of strangers and distant relatives, including Ti-Lou, the “She-Wolf of Ottawa.”
The story continues in Crossing the City, where we meet Maria as she leaves the city of Providence, Rhode Island, pregnant and alone; we also meet Nana in Montréal, two years later. Having crossed the continent from her grandparents’ farm in Saskatchewan, Nana now traverses the city, alone, in an attempt to buy train tickets to reunite her family. Crossing the City includes vivid descriptions of Montréal’s early-twentieth-century neighbourhoods, which Nana traverses as she makes her journey.
The third novel in the series, A Crossing of Hearts, opens during a stifling heat wave in Montréal in August 1915, as war rages in Europe. The three Desrosiers sisters – Tititte, Teena, and Maria – have been planning a vacation in the mountains, to do nothing but gossip, laugh, drink, and overeat while basking in the sun. Maria’s children beg to come along. Reluctantly, Maria takes her children on the week-long trip to the Laurentians. As the reader views the journey through young Nana’s eyes, we come to understand the impoverished circumstances they leave behind in Montréal, only to find poverty evermore present in the country. Yet it feels good to get out of town, and encounters with rural relatives crystallize young Nana’s true feelings for her mother, as confidences and family secrets fuse day into night.
Rite of Passage, just published, finds Nana at the crossroads of the end of childhood, facing the passing of her adolescence and the arrival of new responsibilities as her grandmother Joséphine approaches her last hours. To calm the storm, Nana reads the enthralling tales of Josaphat-the-Violin – a returning character in Tremblay’s Plateau Mont-Royal Chronicles. Three of Josaphat’s fantastical stories contain revelations whose full influence in her own existence Nana cannot yet measure. In parallel, Nina’s rebellious mother, Maria, languishes back in Montréal. She is torn between her desire to gather her young family around her and her deep uncertainty about being able to care for them properly.
Next in the series will be The Grand Melee, translated by Sheila Fischman, to be published in Fall 2020.
For even more information about this series and Tremblay’s other linked works, check out this piece about the development of the character of Nana!