Brian Moore
Black Robe (1985)
Reviewed: 1997-08-30

This slim novel is the story of a French Jesuit priest, Father Laforgue, who starts out from the tiny 17th century colony of New France, surrounded by Native American tribes in what is now Canada, on a mission to save the souls of "the Savages" as the French call the Indians. Accompanied by Daniel, a devout young man, and a group of friendly Algonkins, Laforgue, called a "Black Robe" by the Indians because of the traditional vestment worn by his order, sets out on a journey that becomes a struggle against hunger, cold, and exhaustion, the suspicion of the natives fueled by their superstitious beliefs, and the unwelcome attention of hostile tribes. The priest who dreams of becoming a martyr finds out that he underestimated the ordeal involved in this fate and the test to which the sufferer's faith is put.

A central aspect of Black Robe is the clash of different cultures. The Indian way of life is frightenly unlike the culture of Laforgue or our modern Western one descended from his. All contact is governed by the mutual incomprehension of the French and the natives of each other's customs and thinking, a barrier much harder to overcome than the comparitively simple language one. Moore draws his descriptions of the Indians from the Relations, the actual letters the Jesuits sent back to their superiors in France. The resulting picture is very unlike that found in most popular fiction, and more alien than a good many SF writers' attempts at portraying extraterrestrial cultures. The book painfully shows that the mere contact with strangers can destroy a delicate culture such as that of the Huron and Algonkin nations.

I read this book because it had been recommended to me as offering understanding in the motivation and way of thinking of missionaries, what drives these men to undergo considerable hardships, in the extreme torture and death, in order to convert foreign peoples to their faith. Alas, the novel doesn't offer any new insights into the insanity meme of religion, which it takes for granted, and the Jesuits' cause "to save souls" is straightforward enough. Despite some unusually intense scenes, Black Robe is rather unexceptional. One not quite serious gripe I have is that, considering the protagonist and setting, I would have preferred it had the novel been written in French.

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