by Brian Moore
Another day, and another soul seeks death, hoping the next world will be better than the one he knows. Is he a gunman in an Australian chocolate shop this week? Or the young Father Paul Laforgue in seventeenth century New France, longing for martyrdom among the “Savages” of a strange new world?
As James Carroll wrote of 1985’s Black Robe by fellow Catholic Brian Moore, in a novel populated “with men and women wholly unlike us ¼ we recognize its fierce, awful world as the one we live in.”
In his author’s note to Black Robe, Moore reports tracking down the letters Jesuit missionaries sent home, a record of the early Indians of North America, “who, at that early stage, were in no way dependent on the white man and, in fact, judged him to be their physical and mental inferior¼ (holding) him in contempt for his stupidity in not realizing that the land, the rivers, the animals, were all possessed of a living spirit¼ ”
Into this world Laforgue arrives, praying for the honor of martyrdom but doubting his worthiness of that gift. On the cusp of a Canadian winter, he persuades a group of Algonkin to take him to a post in the far north whose missionaries have been stricken with illness. The river passage will soon be choked with impassable ice. Worse still, the way lies through the territory of the Iroquois, enemies both to French and Algonkin. And although Laforgue doesn’t yet know it, his helper Daniel has renounced the world to come in favor of the present world of a young Algonkin woman, Annuka.
Annuka’s father, Chomina, has ill-omened dreams that urge him to abandon the quest. But driven by a sense of obligation to the French for a gift of muskets, he aids Laforgue, only to perish with most of his family at the hands of his Iroquois enemies.
Separated from the surviving Daniel and Annuka, Laforgue arrives alone at his destination to find the villagers stricken with a deadly fever. He began his journey with the belief that baptizing “Savages” would rebound to his heavenly glory. Now, he has learned to doubt the wisdom of such glory.
But his potential converts, agonizing over whether the “water sorcery” of baptism can stop the fever decimating them, pose a simpler, harder question: do you love us?
“¼ he went down to the first row of the sick,” Moore writes. “He took a small ladle, filled it and poured a trickle of water on a woman’s fevered brow, saying in (her) tongue, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ The Savage woman stared up at him, sick, uncomprehending. He moved on, saying over and over the words to make them Christians.”
And as Laforgue wonders whether this is the will of God, whether it is true baptism or a mockery, he can finally answer their question. Do you love us? Yes.
Moore, like Laforgue, also found that new worlds led to new ways. Born in Northern Ireland, he moved first to Canada, where he began writing, and finally to the United States to teach and write movie scripts, including his adaption of Black Robe. Shortly before his death in 1999, he wrote, “There are those stateless wanderers who, finding the larger world into which they have stumbled vast, varied and exciting, become confused in their loyalties and lose their sense of home. I am one of those wanderers.”
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a December of spirited adventures with Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions.)