Alphonsine by Alice Kegley
2008, 182 pp
Review by James LaForest
Alphonsine by Alice Kegley is a self-published work of historical fiction set in the second half of the 19th century in Dakota Territory, Chicago, and Montreal. The story focuses on the Lariviere family, recent immigrants from Montreal, of which Alphonsine is the mother. Kegley portrays the growing family as French-speaking and sophisticated, more accustomed to the society of Montreal than the rough life of the American plains. We share their struggles and adventures and the experience of a journey most of us cannot imagine undertaking. The narration also brings in glimpses of other aspects of French Canadian life from the 19th century: characters who live on the margins of new settlements, marrying and living among Native Americans; the presence of the Catholic church and the growth of parishes like Notre Dame de Chicago; the struggle to learn English as immigrants in America.
Alphonsine is based on real-life events and the real ancestors of Kegley, a retired schoolteacher from Wisconsin, bringing a very personal perspective to the story. Her knowledge of the widespread French Canadian culture of the 19th century shines through. She includes a glossary of French terms, which allows readers who do not know French to fully appreciate the entire story.
Self-published books are a challenge to review. They are labors of love, topics for which the writer obviously has a great passion. Generally the authors of self-published books are intelligent and focused. Yet self-published works can be uneven, lacking the vetting of an acquisitions editor and the scrutiny of professional copyediting. This work, while enjoyable and well-conceived, would no doubt have benefited from those services.
Alphonsine is similar to the genre of works by family genealogists who seek to place their ancestors in a historical and social context. It resembles in a way a French Canadian Little House on the Prairie as another reviewer has noted. As a whole, it will appeal to readers who enjoy memoirs and historical fiction. Its audience is potentially a wide array of people, but it would be well placed in a juvenile collection, giving younger readers a glimpse of life in another era among French-speaking migrants in North America.