Anna Maxymiw’s debut novel ‘Minique’ is ‘an act of feminist recovery and a feat of imagination’
In her 1884 volume “Legends of Detroit”, Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin details a brief encounter between Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the 17th-century Frenchman who would go on to found the city of Detroit, and a bizarre-looking woman identified as Mother Minique. , The witch. The woman, a fortune teller, informed Cadillac that he would continue to found a great city, but “dark clouds are rising” for him. “Beware of excessive ambition”, Hamlin quotes the diviner as a warning, “it will spoil all your plans.”
Toronto writer Anna Maxymiw uses this anecdote — so far, little more than a footnote in French colonial North American history — as a springboard for her debut novel. She does this 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 to being unable to determine for certain whether the fortune teller actually existed. “Mique” is therefore both an act of feminist reconquest and a feat of imagination, postulating a complete history for women, the majority of whom in colonial Montreal under the eyes of their often absent father, a woodsman, his stern aunt Marie, and Father Etienne, the local priest spouting fire and brimstone.
After her best friend succumbs to a fatal fever, Minique finds herself adrift and finds herself under the guardianship of Anne, an innkeeper who has been acquitted by a court of witchcraft. Anne advises the teenage Minique in making herbal remedies and other tinctures – including a hallucinogenic paste made from cannabis and poppy juice – ultimately bequeathing the young woman with the knowledge contained in her secret grimoire.
This all happens before Cadillac is even introduced more than halfway through the novel. By the time he appears, Minique has fled the colony of Montreal for a remote cabin in the desert, where she lives alone and earns a living by selling potions to the colonists who make the difficult journey to her doorstep.
The two halves of the book – the first detailing Minique’s young years in Montreal, the second focusing on the increasingly tumultuous relationship between Minique and Cadillac – don’t quite sit comfortably together. The pace and focus of the Montreal sections are necessarily more diffuse and incoherent, while the sections that zoom in on Minique and Cadillac seem overloaded in comparison. Sentimentality threatens to take over these final sections: “In the silence”, writes Maxymiw, “they are just one woman and one man, not two figureheads from two different worlds”. Elsewhere, Cadillac is described as “warm, as if cradling fire in its hips and heart”.
This stands in contrast to the traditional CanLit tropes that appear throughout the first 150 pages – thecoureurs des bois and the King’s Daughters populating scenes of settlers struggling in “this terrible land” with its “weight of winter”. Maxymiw tends to fall back on clichés – “she owns the place”, “pulls her short”, “keeps her ear to the ground”, “she digs in her heels”, “looks more and more worn” – which lend to this historical fiction a syntax a little too modern to be entirely immersive.
That said, Maxymiw has a keen sense of metaphor patterns: the color red is a leitmotif in the novel, most notably when it comes to the legendary “red dwarf,” a mythological red imp, and the red ribbon of the braid of Anne, which contains consequences of Little Red Riding Hood. The fairy tale runs deep in Minique’s eventual retreat to the woods to live and in the imagery of wolves that lives on throughout the book.
Predation is a key facet of Minique’s history: men prey on women, settlers prey on Iroquois and Mohawks, the histrionic Père Etienne preys on so-called pagans and witches. Although at the climax of the novel, as Minique’s strength and determination take over, the association of the lupine is reversed and the directive “find the wolf”, which refers to one thing at the beginning, is refers to something else by the end.
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