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Montrealer’s first novel takes a historic look at Acadian women

May, 2010

When Cassie Cohoon left Acadia 50 years ago to seek her fortune in Montreal, it wasn’t so apparent that her path might eventually lead back home. Cohoon’s first work of fiction, Severine, was published two years ago as she was retiring.

Her book examines the often-overlooked role of women in Acadian history and culture.

The historic backdrop is the expulsion in 1755 of French-speaking Acadians from what is today Nova Scotia. Up to 12,000 Acadians were displaced.

Like the main character in her book, Cohoon lived in Montreal for 50 years after leaving Chéticamp in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. A trip back to Acadia inspired Cohoon to explore her roots and eventually write the book.

While in the book Sevvie, a latter-day Severine who has shortened her name, leaves her family behind in Acadia never to return, Cohoon always remained in touch with her parents.

“I’m focusing on the women of Acadia,” says Cohoon, an N.D.G. resident. As the name Severine is common among Acadian women, Cohoon uses it for several characters in her multi-generational story. Sevvie is a typical Acadian woman, modeled partly on Evangeline, the mythical embodiment of Acadian womanhood created by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

A trip home to Acadia inspired Cassie Cohoon. Photo: Photo: Martin C. Barry

“It was the women of Acadia, they say, who kept the dream of their homeland alive and preserved the culture,” Cohoon says. “They were strong women. It’s usually the women in any culture who do this. But the women of Acadia, for one thing, were partners with their husbands in the work on the farm.”

Acadian men, who were also fishermen, tended to be away quite a bit, so the women were in charge at home.

For Cohoon, writing Severine was a seven-year labour. She started not long after the death of her husband about a decade ago.

“I set off by myself in my car and toured Nova Scotia, looking for my roots. I had the idea to write a different kind of book. I was going to set it there, but it wasn’t going to be historical. It was going to be some kind of mystery. “But looking through my roots and coming across all the stories, it came to me and I thought: ‘I’ve got to write about these women’.”

Apart from its historical context, Severine is about a woman coming to terms with the fact she is Acadian. Sevvie feels guilty because she has raised her daughter so that she is unaware of her past. Sevvie wants to do something to undo it.

With an initial print-run of 1,200 books, Severine, published by Shoreline Press, has sold well, especially in the Maritimes, according to Cohoon, who still has about 100 copies. However, since she has had to promote it on her own, any money she’s made has been reinvested.

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