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Exile from paradise

Judy LeBlanc’s novel delves into the tragic events of the mid-18th century Expulsion of the Acadians that displaced over 14,000 people.

March 05th, 2024

Fiction writer, Judy LeBlanc, based in Fanny Bay, Vancouver Island has Acadian ancestry.

LeBlanc shows how historical trauma is passed from one generation to the next, highlighting themes of endurance, hope and survival.

By Grant Buday

When wayward son, Daniel, runs away from his Victoria home at the age of sixteen to explore his Acadian roots in Nova Scotia, he leaves behind his bewildered and grieving parents. Although his mother, Lise, is descended from the French settlers who were exiled by English armies in the mid-18th century during what is now called the Expulsion of the Acadians, she is not at first aware that this tragic event still affects her so many generations later. But Daniel feels the impact and he seeks some answers in Judy LeBlanc’s novel, The Broken Heart of Winter, an exploration of how historical trauma is passed from generation to generation.

The Expulsion of the Acadians, or the Grand Dérangement, dates to 1713, when Britain gained control of Acadia, which included parts of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Maine. Over the following decades, tensions flared between France and England, who were competing for control of North America. Refusing to sign an oath of loyalty to the British Crown, some Acadians joined French military operations against the English, culminating in the Acadians’ forced removal; an entire people—farmers, fishers, hunters—were brutally uprooted.

Acadians waiting for their turn to board the ships that will take them away from their homes

Of the approximately 14,500 Acadians, 11,000 were relocated, nearly a third of whom died of disease, while some 3,000 managed to hide or make it to safety in Quebec. Those sent by ship to Louisiana became known as Cajuns. In 1764 an order was given allowing them to return. Such is the book’s backstory.

The Broken Heart of Winter does not deliver epic sea voyages, military heroics or naval battles. LeBlanc focuses instead on family life and what she describes as the mass trauma that caused “patterns of deep disruption [that] repeat themselves generation after generation.” This is an exploration of stress that persists through the centuries like a virus.

Composed of three sections, the first and longest one focuses on Lise and Daniel. The latter two sections, set in 1832 and 1755 – 63 respectively, take us into the lives of those who emigrated from France to North America and were subsequently persecuted.

Certainly Lise, her husband Dick and Daniel are stressed, particularly when Daniel suddenly leaves at such a young age. “For the first two years Daniel was gone, Lise looked for him through the police, his friends, the obituaries,” writes LeBlanc. “She and Dick blamed one another; they made vicious accusations.” And later, “All those years of conflict with Dick didn’t amount to anything resembling resolution.” Inevitably they divorce.

Section two, titled Isle Madame, 1832, Contrary Winds, is narrated by Appoline, the backbone of a multigenerational family composed mostly of women. The dour and dutiful Appoline negotiates between her exhausted mother, her nearly one-hundred-year-old grandmother and a wild younger sister. “My grandfather died before I was born, though his fiddle has rested against the wall near Grandmere’s bed my entire life and no one, not even Papa, was permitted to touch it. I’ve never known music in the house and yet there it sits, a reminder that it was not always this way.”

The third section, Acadia, 1755 – 1763, The Starving Time, is narrated by the grandmother herself, who survived the crisis as a young woman. This is the book’s most dramatic part with its combination of suspense and action as the Acadians flee through the forest avoiding the redcoats.

“I lost track of how many days we walked, how often we returned to where we’d started that morning. We were slower each day and our food supply dwindled. We ate eels when we were near enough to the marshes and when the night was light enough that the men could spot and spear them in the shallow waters.”

Their trek culminates with the narrator killing not an eel but an Englishman. “I loaded my gun again and fired just as he reached his. It had become a game to keep him from his gun. I kicked it farther up the bank as he moaned and held a bloody hand to his chest. The creek swirled red, the colour of his infantry jacket.”

The rifle she uses is a Charleville, a five-foot-long flintlock French infantry musket. Like the Acadians themselves, this particular specimen survives, and we meet it in all three sections of the book, including the first: Victoria – Halifax, 2001, The Charleville.

The Broken Heart of Winter is about endurance, hope and survival. Though generally gloomy in tone, the third section ends on an upbeat note with grandmere saying: “Shouts of ‘Je suis Acadian’ ride high above the clamour and throng. A daughter of a time I’ve not yet known will be swept into the motion of the crowd, not quite of the people that flow around her and yet affected with their lightness and energy. My memory is a rich country.”

Rich in domestic detail and personal emotion, The Broken Heart of Winter will enlarge any reader’s appreciation of Acadian history in particular, and Canadian history in general.


Reviewer bio: Grant Buday’s recent historical fiction novels, Orphans of Empire (Brindle & Glass, 2020) and In the Belly of the Sphinx (Brindle & Glass, 2023) tell of the late 19th century lives of settlers in Vancouver and Victoria respectively.   

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