From the book
The old priest waltzed with each of the O'Brien children while his pretty housekeeper, Mme Painchaud, operated the Victrola. She was a widow whose husband had been killed at the sawmill. Sliding the disc from its paper sleeve, she carefully placed it on the turntable and started turning the crank. As the needle settled onto the disc, a Strauss waltz began bleating from the machine's horn, which resembled, Joe O'Brien thought, some gigantic dark flower that bees would enter to sip nectar and rub fertile dust from their legs.This was in Pontiac County, Quebec, in the early 1900s. The Pontiac. Most of the people up there were farmers, though it really was a fur country, a timber country, and perhaps never should have been farmed. People from the longhouse nations had skimmed through in birchbark canoes, taking game, taking beaver, never so much as scratching the meagre soil. Lumbermen had come for the white pine and moved on as soon as they had taken the choicest timber. The early settlers were Famine Irish, and French Canadians moving up from overcrowded parishes along the St. Lawrence: people hungry for land, with nowhere else to go. The children dancing with the old priest were two sisters and three brothers, of whom Joe O'Brien was the oldest. There were stories that their grandfather had been a horse trader in New Mexico and a buffalo hunter in Rupert's Land before taking up a farm in Sheen Township and piloting log rafts on the Ottawa. Every few years he left his wife and children and went venturing, sometimes as far as California, once back to Ireland. One spring he did not return, and he was never seen again. One story said he had drowned at Cape Horn, another that he'd been robbed and murdered in Texas.
There was a restless instinct in the family, an appetite for geography and change. On St. Patrick's Day 1900, Joe's father, Michael O'Brien, left his wife and children and joined a regiment of cavalry being raised at Montreal to fight the Boers.
Joe O'Brien had inherited from his father the Black Irish colouring: pale skin, blue eyes, and jet black hair. The others--Grattan and Tom, Hope and Kate--were mostly fair (Hope was a redhead), with pale blue eyes and skin that was pink in winter, tawny in summer. They all had good teeth and long legs and rarely were ill. Their mother, Ellenora, had lived all her life in the clearings and knew the herbs growing wild, which mushrooms were safe to eat and which weren't, and by which streams the choicest fiddleheads could be found. She made sea pie, using every kind of wild meat. If a child took sick she brewed maroon tea with treebark and dried gooseberries. She made poultices from leaves, herbs, and scraps of cloth, and if someone had a fever she burned dried grass and brushed smoke over their heads, muttering spells using Algonquin and Irish words that no one, not even herself, really understood.
In the old priest's house the children were learning table manners and geometry as well as the waltz. And absorbing a way of seeing the world as a mystery--layered, rich. The old priest, Father Jeremiah Lillis, SJ, was a New York Irishman, short, barrel-chested, and nearly seventy when he came into the Pontiac. The remote parish was his first pastoral appointment. Before banishment to Canada he had been a scholar, a teacher, a dreamer. He had been sent into exile after it came to the attention of his superiors that certain funds belonging to the New York house were missing. In fact the old man had given away the order's money, as well as his own, to various men and women whom he loved. For these sins, and a few others, he had been dispatched to the Pontiac.
The stout little priest shaved infrequently, so...