by Rivera Sun
My novel, The Dandelion Insurrection, begins in the St. John Valley in Northern Maine. I chose this location for many reasons, one of which is that I grew up there as a teenager. The other reason is that the Acadians have a long history of resistance and resilience – perfect for the characters in the novel.
Our farm house was built by Hector Dumais, the father of Valier Dumais (the namesake of Valier Beaulier in the novel). Valier was a short, wiry man in his 80s when we first met him. My father, Jim Cook, a 6’6″ gentle giant, towered over him. They made an unlikely pair, but when we bought the land from Valier and his nephew, he moved next door and continued to work the land on his own garden. Valier was browned from the sun, wrinkled from longevity, and far wiser about farming than all of us combined. He mentored us through our first years farming (probably chuckling a great deal as he and his wife Florence discussed our latest follies in French). Valier could out-pick any of us young kids, no matter what crop we were harvesting – green beans (haricots), raspberries (framboise), or potatoes (pommes du terre).
At first glance, the St. John Valley, bucolic and agrarian, seems an unlikely setting for the emergence of a pair of young revolutionaries like Zadie Byrd Gray and Charlie Rider. But that’s before you understand the valley as the site of centuries-old cultural resistance. The St. John Valley was settled by the French Acadians in the 1600s. (It is originally Mi’kmaq and Maliseet territory.) In 1755, during the French and Indian War, the British deported the Acadians as part of the military campaign. They rounded up 11,000 people (out of a total 14,000) in the churches between here and the coastal communities in New Brunswick, loaded them onto ships, and sent them to the thirteen colonies. Thousands perished on the voyage. Some Acadians resettled in Louisiana, giving rise to the word “Cajun”. Le Grand Dérangement – the Deportation – is a story that all schoolchildren learn in this area, including newcomers like my family.
For the next two hundred years, French Acadians struggled to preserve their culture. English-speaking Catholic nuns ran the schools in the area and speaking French would earn a child a swift rap across the knuckles with a cane. When I was growing up in Grand Isle, many younger Acadians could speak French with their parents and grandparents, but did not write or read it. This is slowly changing as a sense of cultural pride is being restored.
I encourage all visitors to Skylandia to pay a visit to the Acadian Village, located a short 20 minute drive east in Van Buren, to learn more about the Acadians. Also, in the Grand Isle Historical Society just a mile down the road, you can find a photo of an infant Valier Dumais standing on our neighbors’ porch – the home of his mother’s family. Hector Dumais literally married the girl next door – Anna Bouchard – and the photo shows them all on her family’s porch. Our current neighbors have been restoring the house and you’ll be tickled to see how much it resembles this photo. If you would like to see it, give our friend Gerald Soucy a call at the Grand Isle Historical Society at (207) 895-6949. He is one of the stewards and will be happy to show it to you. (Ask him about smuggling stories while you’re there!)
Speaking of smuggling, the families of this valley are truly international. If you look across the valley, the north side is Canada. The Acadian families have married back and forth across the river for centuries. A few years ago, a local project rebuilt the historic ferry over the river and offered rides during an Acadian celebration. One ferry rider related a memory about how he had crossed over the river in Grand Isle to attend a dance – the dance where he met his future wife. Downstream, there is a point where a pair of signal lights used to let smugglers know when the border patrol agents were nearby. If the coast was clear, boats and ferries of goods would slip across the river, particularly alcohol during the US prohibition years. My favorite smuggling story (mentioned in The Dandelion Insurrection) is how mock funerals were used as an excuse to fill a casket with liquor and drive the wagon across the border right under the noses of the border patrol.
These are just some of the local folklore that provide the inspiration for the spirited resistance put up by Charlie Rider’s Acadian family. People are far more rebellious than we often think. Ordinary resistance to perceived injustices occurs all the time – and occasionally, examples of extraordinary resistance break out. Such a story occurred at the Fraser Paper Mill in 1971.
The paper mill is a major source of employment in the area, and has been for most of a century. It is an international operation with facilities on both sides of the border. In 1971, however, workers went on strike, demanding better wages. They even went so far as to drag a pile of tree logs over the railroad tracks to block the delivery and shipment of lumber and paper goods. They won the strike and signed a three-year contract. You can find a documentary about this on Youtube.
In the St. John Valley, the changing attitudes about border security since 9/11 have been keenly felt. When I was growing up there, youth did not need identification or passports to cross the border. Adults could use their drivers’ licenses. You often knew the agents on duty; they lived in the towns and were related to half the population. After 9/11 that changed, much to the annoyance of the locals. Now, the border is under surveillance by web cameras up and down the river. The customs agents are non-locals and passports are required for crossing the border. Imagine needing a passport to go visit your relatives who live only a 15 minute drive away!
These are the local realities that came into play when I posited the fictional border closure in The Dandelion Insurrection. Now that you see the area, it’s easier to imagine how people would be upset at such an action. My observation is that people don’t set out to be revolutionaries. They set out to live their lives. But when unjust laws outlaw life, they have to rise up in resistance. Such is the beginning of The Dandelion Insurrection.
Pierrette’s Cafe:When I was growing up in Grand Isle, there was no cafe in the area. I invented Pierrette’s Cafe for the novel. It’s actually more common for Acadians to gather in the homes of family members, particularly on Sundays or around the holidays. I imagined Pierrette’s Cafe located on Main Street in Madawaska. The “get-away” back road Charlie and Zadie drove off on would have been Beaulier Road, which loops scenically through the woods and farms up to Long Lake and back down to Grand Isle. (I recommend it as a scenic drive! The directions on the loop are in our House Guide book.)
The Revolutionary Tractor:Bill and Ellen’s farm is superimposed on Skylandia Farm. (In his radical views and long rants, Bill Gray reminds me of my father.) The field where the Revolutionary Tractor scene takes place is up the hill behind the house and to the left at the top. We never had a broken down tractor sitting on the crest of the rise, but I spent plenty of hours riding a planter or picking potato bugs out of that field. It has an excellent view. The tractor itself is based on our old tractor, rusting red and about as classic as they come. This tractor is still running in the fields, used by our farmer and friend Dave Ouellette, who cultivates the organic wheat, oats, and barley you see on Skylandia’s fields today. We actually bought this tractor from his father in the 1990s and love how the circle of farming goes around and around.
Valier’s Cabin on the Lake: In The Roots of Resistance (sequel to The Dandelion Insurrection), the cabin on the lake that Charlie retreats to would be located on the shores of Long Lake. It is common for Acadians to have a house near town and a small, rustic cabin on the lake for summer use. There is a swimming beach called Birch Point about 10 miles from our house. (You can find directions in our House Guide Booklet.)
Tintamarre:This is a type of protest, not a place, so it’s unlikely you’ll see this (unless you show up at the Acadian Festival around August 15th when the host a tintamarre as part of the celebration). A tintamarre is an event in which many people make noise by banging of pots and pans, ringing bells and blowing whistles. It’s a lot like the cacerolazo in the Dandelion Insurrection, but here’s the interesting part of the story: I didn’t know about the tintamarre then! After writing the book, my sister told me about the other tradition. The tintamarre is based on the sound of thousands of birds lifting into flight . It comes from coastal Acadia in New Brunswick where numerous migratory birds stop over on their journeys. (So thematic to the novel’s murmurations concepts, don’t you think?) In 1955, during the Acadian Congress, it was decided that Acadians would hold tintamarres to celebrate their survival after persecution, announce their presence and existence boldly to the world, and rejoice at being alive. Needless to say, I added it into The Roots of Resistance. How could I not?!
These are just some of the wonderful things about the St. John Valley, and its points of inspiration for The Dandelion Insurrection and The Roots of Resistance. There are many more. Enjoy your stay on Skylandia Farm and your exploration of the St. John Valley. I’m delighted you’ve come to visit.