Black Robe: A Novel

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Category: Classic
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Date Published: June 1, 1997
Number of Pages: 256
Print Price: $11.08
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Black Robe offers a portrait of the fictional Father Laforgue in his missionary work among the Huron people in the mid-17th century.  The title of the book refers to the North American native term for Catholic missionary priests, who in this era were primarily French Jesuits. 

Brian Moore did serious research in an effort to ensure historical accuracy in this novel.  Taking a clue from Graham Greene’s Essays, Moore located Francis Parkman’s 1867 history, The Jesuits in North America, Volume 2 of a seven-volume work, France and England in North America.  Parkman in turn led Moore to Relations, the collected letters written by real Jesuit missionaries as reports to their Superiors in France.  Le Conseil des Arts du Canada also offered Moore access to anthropological records about Iroquois, Algonquin and Huron history and customs that augment and supplement the Jesuit records.

Thus, the Great Lakes-North American world into which perhaps naïve and possibly courageous Jesuit missionaries came, on fire for evangelization, apparently is accurately presented. 

This book might illustrate the dangers of perhaps too much research by a dedicated scholar.  It portrays a world so overwhelmingly filled with vicious shamanism, graphic violence, cannibalism, incessant vulgarity and profanity that I found myself constantly at the verge of vomiting, and barely could struggle through it.

Even over several tries, I was unable to keep track of the relations among different tribes who were friends or enemies or both, as they met along the upriver journey; or the different names for similar or the same characters, in different “Indian” languages.  For a relatively small book, new peoples and new terms were introduced much too often and I’m a trained anthropologist with fieldwork experience among Native Americans.

My Catholic heart was not uplifted by passages about Fr. Laforgue’s simplistically and briefly presented “faith”; while all his sacramental possessions were stolen and blasphemed; and every honorable native who tried to help him reach his mission post was brutally raped, murdered and/or eaten by a rival tribe, time after time.

While I believe Moore sincerely meant this book to be a well-deserved tribute to the enduring faith and genuine heroism of the early Catholic pioneers, as a novel it did not work well for me.  The protagonist priest, intended as the hero of the novel, did not receive enough character development, or page time, for me to appreciate him as a fully-rounded human being.

After glimpsing Fr. Laforgue cling to his repetitive ritual of baptism, confession and prayers (briefly presented) in the face of abomination after abomination (drawn on at substantial length) throughout the narrative, I still did not believe him at the end of the book: 

“Spare them. Spare them, O Lord.”

“Do you love us?”

“Yes.”

Were the Jesuits reporting back to their superiors in France perhaps exaggerating the barbarism of the New World?  Were they blocked by humility from exhibiting in correspondence their own personalities and struggles, beyond fond memories of prayer at their mother’s knees?  Were the portraits of Native Americans in this book influenced by land disputes with the First Nations in Canadian Courts at the time of this book’s publication?  I can’t know.

Moore is at least culpable, as author, for failure to sufficiently develop his main character.  Sadly, I can only recommend this book to a reader with a high tolerance for shifting detail, and an unusually strong stomach for gore and foul language.

Perhaps the lasting message of Black Robe could be read as the incredible of Grace of God.  Only He could have wished to save the souls of human beings portrayed as so completely overpowered by darkness.  And only He could have used so pitiful an instrument as Father LaForgue, to accomplish that task.

Publisher:
ISBN-13: 978-0452278653
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 0.7 inches


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Margaret King Zacharias embraced the Catholic Faith in 1988 after earning degrees in education, anthropology and psychology.  She is the eldest of four siblings, mother of two grown sons, and Auntie to abundant cousins, nieces and nephews.  Margaret has published short stories, poems, art, music and drama reviews, academic articles, and written five produced plays.  She loves exploring different cultures and languages on Catholic pilgrimage, incorporating French, Irish, Italian or German vocabularies into her creative works.  Margaret teaches writers’ workshops for children and senior citizens as an Iowa Arts Council artist.  She recently completed Master’s certification in archetypal dream pattern analysis.  But on some days, she prefers to cook in her kitchen, or hide in her sewing room to needlepoint, knit, pray.   St. Therese of Lisieux works hard to keep Margaret humble; and St. Anthony of Padua never fails to find the various things she misplaces daily.


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