March 10, 2010

'Quiet Presence' still resonates with cultural awareness

— Among the first collections of oral history stories about Maine and New England's Franco-Americans is ''Quiet Presence,'' written by journalist Dyke Hendrickson.

My own copy of ''Quiet Presence'' is literally falling apart after 29 years of enjoyable reading and reference. Hendrickson's first-person interviews describe the cultural diversity of the Quebecois and Acadians within Maine's Franco-American communities at a time when the culture was at risk of disappearing.

The Acadians trace their heritage to the earliest French colonial settlers of the early 17th century who established colonies in Maine and Nova Scotia. Quebecois are descendants of the French who settled in Quebec and Montreal.

The Franco-American culture was quietly and quickly amalgamating into America's mainstream in 1980, when Hendrickson published the 27 first-person stories.

Since then, the supporting efforts of writers, performers and historians have brought about a modest revival of interest in Maine's Franco-American history and culture. This awareness occurred because of the development of genealogical and historical societies, local festivals, literature, painting, and the performing arts.

''Quiet Presence'' may have heralded a movement toward historic preservation of the Franco-American culture.

''Quiet Presence'' begins with the story of Adelard Janelle, a Franco-American living in Lewiston who recalled working in the mills when he was 12 years old.

''The hours were from 6 in the morning to 6 at night, but if you were good, they sometimes let you go out to play before the day was over,'' Jannelle says.

He worked for 55 cents a day or $3.30 a week. Nevertheless, Franco-Americans rarely complained about their minority group status, says Hendrickson. Rather, they were quiet to a fault, he says.

Franco-Americans stubbornly retained their French language, customs and folklore and kept close ties with their families in Quebec. These traditions were not shared with New England's English-speaking culture.

As a result, Hendrickson wrote ''Quiet Presence'' to help non-Francos learn about the background of the French in Maine. ''We need to understand the background of this special group in order to understand the challenges they faced and overcame,'' he says.

Another story is about Lorraine Pomerleau Doyon, a girl from Augusta's Sand Hill Franco-American community.

She was 13 years old when she left the Roman Catholic St. Augustine Grammar School in the late 1950s to attend Cony High School. Along with hundreds of other young people raised in Sand Hill, she knew only French as a language.

She remembers being scared on her first day in public school. She was laughed at when she said her numbers entirely in French.

''I was so embarrassed,'' she recalls. ''You had to change your language or be miserable. A lot of students eventually dropped out.''

Franco-Americans are hard workers. Sources document how Franco-Americans were once referred to as the ''Chinese of the East'' because of their willingness to work long hours without complaining. In the book's title, ''Quiet Presence'' captures the work ethic of Franco-Americans.

''I was struck by how Franco-Americans accepted opportunities to work in factories rather than complain about being exploited,'' says Hendrickson.

Hendrickson is now writing ''The Franco-Americans of Maine,'' to be published by Arcadia Press in Portsmouth, N.H.

Hendrickson is reporting on the progress of the book -- and other topics -- at his Web site www.francoamericans.org

''It's important for Franco-Americans to support cultural awareness,'' says Hendrickson. ''With 25 percent of Maine people claiming Franco-American heritage, the culture is obviously important to Maine's history.''

''Writing about Franco-Americans is the most rewarding of all my projects,'' says Hendrickson. ''I learned a great deal about Maine history and the state's most prominent ethnic group.''

Juliana L'Heureux can be contacted at:

Juliana@MaineWriter.com

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