Home > 1980, 20th Century, Beach and Public Transports Books, Canadian Literature, History of the USA, Poulin Jacques, Quebec Literature, Road trip, TBR20 > Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin – Road trip from Gaspé to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin – Road trip from Gaspé to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin (1988) Original French title: Volkswagen Blues.

Volkswagen Blues caught my attention because it’s a road trip from Gaspé, Québec to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail and it goes through places I’ve been to.

The trip starts in Gaspé, the far east of Québec, a beautiful place where they have the phare du bout du monde, the lighthouse at land’s end. It’s the story of a forty-years-old man from Québec City who’s looking for this brother Théo and the last time he sent him a postcard, it was from Gaspé. He meets a young woman who’s half Native Canadian – half white. She’s from the Montagnais tribe and her Indian name is Pitsémine.

Both characters don’t have a real name. The man is a novelist whose nom de plume is Jack Waterman. He nicknames the girl La Grande Sauterelle, the Tall Grasshopper. The narration alternates between calling the man The man or Jack. The girl is mostly the girl or La Grande Sauterelle and sometimes Pitsémine. It’s hard to ignore that the man chose a penname composed of Jack (like Kerouac) and Waterman (a brand of fountain pens, an instrument for a writer). I couldn’t help thinking of Van Gogh with a brother named Théo.

Names are important details as they are both on an identity quest. Jack has a sort of mid-life crisis that pushes him to look for his estranged brother. They haven’t seen each other for twenty years. La Grande Sauterelle has trouble with her mixed origins. This common point brings them together and they start a tentative friendship.

Gaspé

La Grande Sauterelle decides to embark on Jack’s VW bus and be his companion on the road. She has a kitten as a pet, his bus is like a pet to him and their common pet project is to find Théo. The starting point of their trip is an old postcard from Théo with a quote by Jacques Cartier, the French explorer who arrived in Gaspé, discovered Canada and claimed it as French territory. Théo was fascinated by the exploration of territories in Canada and the United States.

From one place to the other, they follow Théo on his trip to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail. During their journey, they learn about the Indian tribes who used to live there, revisit the story of the conquest of the West. They’re on the trails of the pioneers and their wagons. They encounter historical places of this westward migration and its difficulties. They also explore the terrible fate of the Native Americans, the massacres of the Indian wars and the extermination of the bison and the Plains Indian populations.

It’s a trip that reflects on the construction of North America. In its way, it’s a colonization war and shows that violence is at the basis of the construction of Canada and the USA. Violence against Native Americans but also violence of the climate and living conditions of the pioneers. All this is explored in mild tones, Jacques Poulin is a soft writer. His characters are friends, lovers sometimes but sex is more a comfort than anything else. They’re both adrift, looking for their place in the world. Who is the man? Is he Jack the writer, Théo’s brother or someone else? La Grande Sauterelle explains how tough life was for her parents and herself. They were ostracized in both communities, being a mixed couple was a tough choice to live with.

Volkswagen Blues has the music of mild rain, a comforting sound. I wanted to know how their trip would end, to see who they’d meet on the way and to which places they’d go. Like I said at the beginning, I’ve been to several places they visit on their trip. Gaspé, Québec City, Chicago, St Louis, San Francisco. I’ve been to some of the museums they visit and this personal side added to my reading. I enjoyed being with Jack and La Grande Sauterelle, two persons who are very different but adjust to each other and live in harmony. They accept each other the way they are, without a question, without judgment. They slip into each other’s life and habits to live this road trip together.

This is a book I bought in Montreal, which explains why I have the Quebec edition and not the French one. All the dialogues in English speaking places are partly in English, without translation. I don’t know what choice the French publisher Actes Sud made. Did they translate the passages in footnotes? As always, French from Québec has a special ring to it with its own words like chum, its expressions like faire le pouce for to hitchhike, where a French speaker would say faire du stop. I love the word cuisinette for kitchenette and still don’t understand why they didn’t find another word for coke and just use the English term.

I had a very peaceful and pleasant literary trip with these two lost souls. Volkswagen Blues is a quirky book told in mild tones but it still presses on difficult issues, to try to diffuse the pain they left as a trail. This trip is like a massage to their soul, a way to ease the tension, work in the knots they carry with them in the hope that they are gone when the journey ends.

Other review by Leaves and Pages: Crossing America in search of something ultimately undefined.

  1. April 3, 2018 at 5:36 pm

    Road trips are fun and make interesting books and movies, I don’t know why, and not just when you recognise the roads taken, though that has its own attractions. I know elements of the Oregon trail well, but just from reading, I doubt I’ll ever visit the US. I made my own road trip as a young man, with friends in an English Commer van, similar to a VW bus (called Kombis here), up the east coast of Australia. And drove my family a couple of times across Australia, from Melbourne to Perth and back.

    Like

    • April 4, 2018 at 1:41 pm

      I’m always attracted to road books, I’ll have to think about why. (it’s an idea for another billet)

      You live in a country were road trips are possible. As Andrew Blackman demonstrated it in his novel On the Holloway Road, road trips in Great Britain don’t have the same flavour.

      Like

  2. April 3, 2018 at 7:17 pm

    Hey, maybe I have also been to those museums and so on. This sounds fun.

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    • April 4, 2018 at 1:43 pm

      I’m sure you’ve been to the Art Institute in Chicago. And probably to the museum in the Arch in St Louis.
      The Gaspésie region in Québec is breathtaking.

      Like

  3. April 4, 2018 at 2:16 am

    Glad you liked this one. I’ve read my share of Road Trip books and they can be good, bad or indifferent.

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    • April 4, 2018 at 1:45 pm

      I like these road trip books a lot and like any novel, good ones are little gems. This one was good because it gave the trip a purpose and it both explored the construction of North America and the personal quests of the characters. And the style was sweet, appeasing.

      Like

  4. April 9, 2018 at 3:53 pm

    This sounds like fun. I’ve been to Quebec City and countryside, and to San Franciso, and have travelled some of the Oregon Trail. I love your comments about Quebec French. We found it almost incomprehensible, partly because of their pronunciation as well as the vocabulary.

    Like

    • April 9, 2018 at 10:31 pm

      It’s an entertaining book, it’s informative and the characters are charming. I enjoyed the peacefulness of the two protagonists and their way to go with the flow. It could be seen as passivity, I think it’s more a great capacity to adapt to circumstances.

      Quebec French is a cousin language, one I like to observe.

      Liked by 1 person

      • April 10, 2018 at 12:03 am

        It’s all about perspective… The passive versus adapting point I mean… Isn’t it.

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        • April 10, 2018 at 10:42 am

          Yes. I’m getting more atuned to the adaptative side vs passive than I did when I was younger. Some things that seem lazy or “the easy way” are sometimes useful skills.

          Liked by 1 person

          • April 10, 2018 at 11:12 am

            I guess it’s called maturing (let’s not say aging!) Emma!

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            • April 10, 2018 at 11:15 am

              We’re not getting older. We’ve been young for more years than others.

              Liked by 1 person

  1. January 20, 2019 at 12:58 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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