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Sacré Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec

Taras Grescoe writes lively, information-packed travel articles, several of which have been folded into Sacré Blues, his lively, information-packed book on Quebec. (The B.C.-raised author settled there on returning to Canada from France four years ago.) What begins as an attempt to deke behind the numerous stereotypes applied to la belle province (passionate, anti-Semitic, hedonist, ignorant, European, snowbound, etc.) turns out to be a thorough, thoroughly entertaining Ski-Doo ride through its economy, language, climate, and popular and spiritual culture.

The chapter on Quebec natives is damning – Quebeckers who assert their own right to self-rule would rarely extend that right to natives – but Grescoe shows that in some unexpected ways, natives in Quebec are better off than their counterparts elsewhere. A chapter on Quebec television is similarly conflicted. Quebeckers watch more television than the residents of any other province, mostly shows produced in-province – thereby counteracting the behemoth of American popular culture – but mostly of declining quality. And discussions of the evolution of Québécois French and the Québécois press are full of strange and wonderful information, especially for Anglo readers.

Probably the trickiest terrain Grescoe navigates is in the chapter on xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Grescoe doesn’t shy from mentioning revealing gaffes by nationalist politicians, nor from exposing claims of pure laine French heritage as something between improbable and bunkum. However, he convincingly argues, Quebec hasn’t been much worse a place for “the other” than anywhere else in Canada. While vestiges of dig-in-your-heels ethnic identification persist, he says, Quebec’s younger generation tends not to be interested in it.

Grescoe is opinionated and has great affection for Quebec, but remains skilful and professional throughout. His juxtapositions of statistics, analysis, revealing interviews, and piquant descriptive passages add up to a multidimensional portrait, not a heavy-handed judgment. Only rarely does he trip on his own exuberant prose. It’s not easy to be witty, compact, and wide-ranging, but Grescoe succeeds except for a very occasional knot of confusion or unsupported assertion.

Some highly relevant events have transpired since the writing of Sacré Blues, including the death of Maurice “Rocket” Richard, the suicide of the leader of Montreal rock band Les Colocs, and La Celine’s pregnancy. Grescoe couldn’t address these specifically, but his analysis of Quebec culture sheds light on them nonetheless, showing that his is a book to be revisited.

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