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Canadian Gothic

THE BLEAK I don't spend much time in Halifax. I rent a Sebring convertible—nominally a sports car, in reality a quasi-hearse—and drive to the western shore of the island. Here Digby produces the world's most exalted scallops, and Acadians remain a strong presence despite a nearly successful effort to ethnically cleanse them in the 18th century.

The British expulsion of the French Nova Scotians gave rise to Longfellow's tearjerker, Evangeline, and it's hard to take a step on the North Shore without encountering this theme. The highway here follows the Evangeline Trail. You can shop at the Evangeline Mall. You can buy little bound copies of Longfellow's poem in the most unlikely places—grocery stores, for instance. I sympathize with this, as a Jew: You made us wander, and we're not going to let you forget it.

The exiled French made their way down to Louisiana, where Acadian became Cajun. Those who stayed in Nova Scotia, or returned, share with Cajun culture an indomitable pride in the face of poverty and minority status, and a cheerful addiction to improbable cuisine. Here the defining dish is rappie pie, a heavy potato concoction forged in Vulcan heat and served in roadside shacks. Not bad stuff, actually. Poutine, another characteristic preparation, is generally dire: french fries embalmed in congealing, greasy cheese and gravy.

This delicacy aside, I have a great fondness for all things French-Canadian: those oppressed by Anglo Canada often find personal redemption (or at least wild, Continental abandon) through encounters with the French. It's not unlike white America's complicated relationship to black culture. Montreal, for instance, was the city in Canada where I first glimpsed the remote possibility of not being eternally miserable.

Acadian cheerfulness on the North Shore arises in opposition to a physical environment that is, for long stretches, unremittingly bleak: low, scrubbed land eroded by a tide that is in places the highest in the world. It is a bleak to be celebrated, however; the American poet Mark Strand particularly recommends the weather-bitten churches. I am torn between the weather-bitten baroque (Catholic) and the weather-bitten austere (Protestant): both represent high points in Eastern clapboarding.

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