La Louisiane by Julia Malye

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This braided historical novel is remarkable for its very origin story. Julia Malye, a young French writer, did an MFA in the US and spent years crafting two versions of this novel: one in English (published under the title Pelican Girls by Harper), the other in French. To read both is less to read a translation than it is to read an interpretation. For bilingual readers out there, it offers a unique pleasure.

It is also totally worth the read in its own right. It’s a gripping dive into an underexplored period of history: the colonization of Lousiana and the “wayward” young women who were deported there as brides. The story is split between the perspectives of three young women, all from radically different backgrounds, but all united at the reformatory of La Salpetrière. Geneviève, a resourceful orphan, provides illegal abortions; Pétronille has been cut off by her family for a supposed affair with a gardener; Charlotte is a 12 year old orphan who grew up at the reformatory. All three end up on La Baleine, a ship bound for the colonies, and all three are married off as soon as they touch ground there.

Malye is sensitive both to the plight of her heroines, who struggle for self-determination, and to the dark role they are cast in, settling and populating the Louisiana Colony to replace the indigenous people living there. There is a later section told from the perspective of a Natchez woman, who befriends Pétronille, and the book explores how they find common ground, but are also separated by a gulf so wide that it seems almost impossible to bridge.

I sped through this and would recommend to any lovers of historical fiction and alternative women’s histories. It’s fresh and absorbing and well crafted and would be a great long vacation read for those interested in weightier novels.

La Louisiane by Julia Malye, Editions Stock

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Miriam Gordis is a bookseller and English language buyer at Albertine. She previously worked in book publishing, most recently as a literary scout. She has served as a reader for the Whiting Award for Nonfiction and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Originally from California, she has worked as a legal translator in Paris and as a copyeditor in Moscow. She is a lover of non-fiction, visual art, pilates, and sunshine.
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