The Shadows of Pierres-Noires

Late July. Minette and I have taken up our summer quarters at my parents in France. Appa will join us next week. In our bedroom we are surrounded by childrens’ books spanning three generations, Minette and her cousins’, mine and my brother’s, and my parents. Minette reads on and so do I.

Among the books that most remind me of my childhood are the Heidi series and the collection of novels by Saint-Marcoux, a woman writer who published many successful chapter books between the early 1950s and the early 1970s. I remember quiet summer afternoons spent reading my father’s old Saint-Marcoux books at the village house where we used to stay with my grandparents.

Saint-Marcoux books still charm me but I now also see how conventional they are. The story plots are good but the writing often lacks originality and spontaneity. Furthermore the books embed a typical mainstream 1950s worldview where gender, social class, and race partitions are never questioned.

A couple of years ago, I undertook to read a Saint-Marcoux book, Le Secret de Pierres-Noires, to Minette. I soon realized it was a bad idea. The writing style was not very appealing to her. More importantly, the villain character, a scheming Indian butler, is uniformly seen through a patently racist lens, something that had previously been lost on me…

Dominique, a graceful girl from a well off Parisian family, is sent to the Périgord mansion of her godmother to recover from a severe appendicite crisis. Her parents struck up a friendship with another young French couple on the ship that took them to Chandernagor (aka Chandannagar), a French colonial enclave in West Bengal, when Dominique was a baby and the other couple’s son a little boy. Both families were sent to India for the fathers to work in colonial organizations. At the captain’s suggestion baby Dominique was baptized during the trip and the couple’s wife became her godmother.

Fast forward 15 years, Dominique’s family has just reconnected with her godmother, now a widow. When the girl arrives at the Pierres-Noires mansions, she finds out that her godmother, once a bright and lively woman, has become depressed and sickly. Her son Philippe is inexplicably out of the picture and the mere mention of his name must be avoided. The mansion and its servants are run by a stern Indian butler, Shandra, who came along when the family returned to France.

The reader gradually understands that Shandra conspired to have Philippe accused of the theft of precious family jewels and to keep the godmother under his influence by administering slowly poisoning “mineral salts” to her. In a comprehensive happy ending, stolen letters and jewels are retrieved in Shandra’s stash, he flies away never to return, the godmother recovers her health and joie de vivre, and Dominique and Philippe get engaged a few years later.

Throughout the story Shandra is a unidimensional character, opaque and malevolent. He is in fact an accumulation of confused colonial clichés: mostly referred to as “the Hindu,” wearing a turban (the traditional Sikh headgear), undecipherable, deceiving his good masters, using poison… 

Soon after I started reading the book to Minette, I understood I should stop. Its strong racist bias had no place in the life of a child, especially a child whose father is Indian. I felt sad. Sad I could not share the book with Minette, but also sad I had overlooked its racist load before. It’s possible I loved Saint-Marcoux books as a child precisely because they stuck to conservative narratives that were not otherwise part of my liberal upbringing. Or because they kept complexity firmly at bay…

Today I can see both the intended and unintended shadows in the Pierres-Noires story and I feel better for it as a parent. Thankfully, there are many other books to nurture Minette here at her grandparents’ and in the world beyond.

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