Reviewed by Katie Cottreau-Robins
Gregory M.W. Kennedy, Something of a Peasant Paradise?: Comparing Rural Societies in Acadie and the Loudunais, 1604-1755. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2014. 288 pp. ISBN987-0-7735-4343-0.
As I read through Something of a Peasant Paradise?, my lens was both multifocal and different from that of the traditional historian. I approached the volume with the perspective of an interdisciplinary scholar currently working in the realm of the French fur trade period in Nova Scotia, as an archaeologist seeking insights relevant to daily life, and as a cultural geographer with a keen interest in the historic interpretation of the environment and its role in the daily lives of indigenous peoples and early colonists. Wearing the hat of a curator for a public museum system, I also examined the book for innovative ways of communicating a very human story that could reach beyond the often exclusive framework of the academy and connect widely to Canadians. Finally, on a more personal note, I read the book eager to learn something new about my Acadian ancestry. Something of a Peasant Paradise? is indeed suitable for a broader audience. It describes the Acadians as an amalgam of traditional French rural society and northeast Atlantic innovation and collaboration, a significant combination that persisted in an age of intensive colonial impact and influence.
I enjoyed this book and I will refer to it often. In simplest terms it is a fascinating and fresh contribution to the expansive collection of Acadian histories and colonial narratives. On a more complex level, the breakdown of Acadian society, including “its particular natural and political conditions, and especially the manner in which the colonists lived, worked and organized themselves”(5) is especially valuable, and from the archaeologist’s perspective, addresses questions and historical themes that really count. Given the breadth of scholarship on Acadie to date, it is time for a comprehensive study of the initial years of everyday life. Kennedy makes energetic strides here particularly in Chapter 3, “The Rural Economy,” where he describes what the Acadian family farm looked like, subsistence and commercial goals, as well as the level of time and effort invested to establish and expand agricultural holdings and community and trade networks.
I agree with Kennedy that there is no need to highlight “Acadian exceptionality”(5) as other scholars have done. That thesis has been sufficiently repeated with a recent example being the UNESCO World Heritage Site proposal that declared the Acadian environment of Grand Pré a cultural landscape with exceptional elements confirming an “outstanding universal value” (inscribed by UNESCO in 2012). Kennedy moves beyond this theme to access the challenges and triumphs on the ground, among families and between communities while military, political, imperial and aboriginal crises advance and recede.
Kennedy’s over-arching goal is to examine the particulars of Acadian society and therefore offer a detailed history of Acadie’s inhabitants. This exploration of identity is met by comparing the experiences and decision-making processes of ordinary people in both Acadie and the Loudunais region in western France. This exercise results quite naturally in the inescapable question of who was “better off” (209). The content of chapters such as “The Natural Environment,” “Political and Military Environment,” The Seigneury,” and “Institutions of Local Governance,” are designed to inform this question at the regional, and most importantly for this volume, the local, household level.
The noted gaps in the archival/documentary record make comparative analysis between Acadie and the Loudunais region an effective tool. It is with comparative analysis – whether regarding material culture, agricultural practices, foodways, governance or landscape features – that we learn of the movement and adaptation of practices, traditions, and objects. Kennedy uses the method to inform the history of the inhabitants of Acadie and their efforts for a “fresh start” as well as the history of the long-established rural society of the Loudunais. He breaks down the similarities between the two regions. There is a tendency however, to make broad, general statements such as, “Both Acadians and their Loudunais counterparts had a clear strategy for farming that comprised a commercial and a subsistence focus” (100). Though the reader is unsure at times the argument Kennedy supports – similar or different – the structure of the information presented strengthens this historical reality: rural Acadie was in fact worlds apart from the Loudunais. It is the differences generated from interplay in the comparative process and centered on the certainties and practicalities of daily life faced by foreign colonists in unfamiliar territory that are the most telling.
Two significant differences were the arrival of the French colonists to an indigenous world and the overall physical environment and climate. The indigenous population, consisting of mainly Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik living throughout Mi’kma’ki, would have affected or intersected with nearly every aspect of daily life especially in the early years of pioneering and settlement. This component of the study is included but without sufficient depth or richness. The inclusion of oral traditions and insights on cultural landscape from the Mi’kmaw perspective needs a place here. The environment and geography of northeastern North America posed other challenges: intense winters and short growing seasons meant high risks and new strategies faced by Acadians and not by their counterparts in the Loudunais. The combination of these factors contributed to the development of a particular identity and culture in Acadie; an identity and culture that merits ongoing exploration.
The central questions highlighted by Kennedy will continue to be debated by those who find this subject matter interesting. Were the Acadians “better off” and experiencing a “peasant paradise” having escaped the old regime of France and to what degree did a distinct Acadian identity emerge as a result? Kennedy offers evidence for each side stressing the isolated nature of Acadie up to 1755 while at the same time describing enduring transatlantic connections and influences. He concludes with the “better off” question as one too “loaded” to answer with any satisfaction and the “peasant paradise” notion as questionable. Authenticating a distinct Acadian identity appears to be the clearer task. Within the context of Kennedy’s analysis, the lively dialogue will continue.
Dr. Katie Cottreau-Robins is the Curator of Archaeology for the Nova Scotia Museum. Her areas of research include the landscape of slavery in Loyalist period Maritime Canada, the fur trade period in Acadie, and the analysis of pre-contact and proto-historic copper artifacts.
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