BREWER — Who is to say that the ugliness, the hideous, are as hidden in plain sight as the prejudices against the local scapegoat, the French-Canadians in Maine? Read Elizabeth Strout’s novel “Olive, Again” and see for yourself.

Elizabeth Strout University of Maine at Farmington.

What shows are the surprised faces or attitudes of the dominant culture toward the upward mobility of the French-Canadians. In “Olive, Again,” the main character’s old student, a French-Canadian and a former U.S. poet laureate, Andrea L’Rieux, is that upward mobility – she’s never destined to succeed, but she does.

Hidden in plain sight is prejudice against who gets to be the hated group in the general population of Maine: the French-Canadians, still, in 2019, as modeled in the book.

When you read “Olive, Again,” substitute “blacks” for “French-Canadian” and see how taboo or wrong that would be to imagine blacks as the target of Olive’s and others’ hatred and/or dislike, instead of the people nicknamed “Frenchie.”

I have to confess I was a fan of Strout’s 2008 collection of connected short stories, “Olive Kitteridge.” I even bought the DVD of the film, but the main character’s despicable demeanor has become more revealed in “Olive, Again,” which details how, as a teacher, she hated the French-Canadians, as did her mother, who hated hearing the French.

All this rhetoric of hatred – portrayed in the allowed and aloud place of literature, representing the Maine scene of the French ethnicity’s existence – espouses the local flavor of whom to hate with impunity. Also, it’s a way of instructing the future generations about this hatred that is not challenged. Or, as Olive’s neighbor Denny Pelletier states in the book, he accepted the prejudice of being called “Frenchie.”

If “Olive, Again” is set in modern, current times, complete with social media posts by Olive, why is Strout writing the circa 1950s or 1960s mindset toward the French in Maine as if the 1970s consciousness raising, valuing the culture, language, etc., of the French-Canadians never happened?

Regarding communication between the dominant and the dominated: Most often the dominated is seen as speaking a broken language, as Pierre Bourdieu stated in “The Purpose of Reflexive Sociology.” To take the analysis further, one must take into consideration other positional coordinates such as class origins, residence, etc. All of these variables intervene and will hinge upon this structure, which is unconscious.

If a black American talks to a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, it is not two persons who speak to each other but, through them, the colonial history in its entirety, or the whole history of the economic, political and cultural subjugation of blacks (or women, or workers) in the United States. And in “Olive, Again,” the Anglo-monolingual toward the bilingual French-Canadian.

Fiction, in this case, resembles the hood and sheets of the Ku Klux Klan, who marched against the French in the state of Maine where the French represented the “honorary blacks,” a white-on-white prejudice.

In regard to “Olive, Again,” I wanted to point out and bring to the street level of consciousness the covert and overt habit of hating the French that has not been eliminated despite all the hard-won battles of eliminating the French jokes, the “you must be French you talk with your hands” comments, remarks about the colorful houses or painted walls, as well as many other public shaming and prejudicial actions. The social capital of the ethnic is valued less than other “privileged” social capital, as Bourdieu pointed out.

No, the hatred of the French in Maine has moved to a more sophisticated, permission-given place, the fictions of Elizabeth Strout. The French in Maine are not presented in a sympathetic or empathetic portrayal but one that is laced with an egregiousness of the hatred of the regional ethnics identified as the “other.”

I believe it is long past the time when the stereotypical, projected images of the French in Maine in literature as the targeted group to hate need to end.


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