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  • Masters and Students: Jesuit Mission Ethnography in Seventeenth-Century New France by Micah True
  • Lisa J.M. Poirier
Micah True. Masters and Students: Jesuit Mission Ethnography in Seventeenth-Century New France. McGill-Queen's University Press. xviii, 246. $32.95

In this aptly titled book, Micah True interrogates the Jesuit Relations as texts and recommends treating these documents not merely as ethnographic or proto-ethnographic reports composed by Jesuit missionaries describing their encounters with First Nations peoples but as purposeful rhetorical compositions.

True argues that these seventeenth-century texts must be understood as narratives that were carefully composed to justify, maintain, and foster contributions to that mission – in short, to represent the mission in such a way that would both interest and please European readers of the Relations. Within these narratives, the Jesuits rhetorically positioned themselves as masters of Catholic doctrine and of techniques of conversion but also as students of First Nations languages and practices. True's analysis of the texts the Jesuits produced demonstrates the Jesuits' familiarity with Quintilian's ''tacita vis,'' the secret power of words when they are artfully woven together. Yet this book is not merely an exercise in rhetorical analysis. Rather, it is a thorough, historically nuanced interrogation of the ways in which the Relations were crafted as textual representations of the Jesuit linguistic efforts and missionary successes, of Native ''pagans,'' ''converts,'' and ''apostates,'' and of mission building, destruction, and rebuilding. [End Page 299]

True's focus on the thoughtfully crafted rhetoric of the Relations enables him to illuminate the political astuteness that enabled the Jesuits to secure and maintain their missionary agenda. In chapters two and three, True argues that by describing themselves as slow but dedicated students of Native languages, the Jesuits depicted themselves as poised for missionary success as they gained increasing linguistic mastery. In chapter four, True demonstrates that, through their composition and publication of painfully detailed accounts of Native practices of captive torture, the Jesuits used pedagogical theatre to demonstrate to their European reading audiences that through careful exposure to Roman Catholic doctrine, they alone could transform these ''savage'' peoples into veritable lambs. In chapter five, True presents his analysis of the two differing accounts of Montagnais (Innu) creation myths presented by Father Paul LeJeune in his 1633 and 1634 relations. The first account, he argues, was LeJeune's attempt to show that the native peoples of New France were cognizant that they were created by a deity and thus were suited to conversion to Christianity; the second account was intended to highlight the limitations of Native knowledge of the events of creation and of the Noahic flood and thus to emphasize the necessity and urgency of the mission. Chapter six focuses on the ways in which the Relations were edited in Europe and the ways in which the Jesuits composing subsequent Relations shaped their rhetoric in response to this editorial feedback. Here, the author recapitulates his argument that the Relations were designed to serve as vehicles of communication and exchange with their European readers and potential donors to the mission and can be most fruitfully interpreted as discursive travel narratives rather than as proto-ethnographic writing.

This book is a strong contribution to the historical literature on seventeenth-century New France, and its transdisciplinarity recommends it to a wide readership. True's focus on rhetoric and genres of writing has implications for the study of modern languages and for studies in communication. His interrogation of ethnography and travel writing has import for the discipline of anthropology. His nuanced understanding of mission, his analysis of LeJeune's presentation of creation myths, and his recognition of the Relations as documents of intra-religious exchange make this book indispensable throughout the discipline of religious studies, from history of religions to missiology. In short, this is a much-needed and in fact invaluable addition to the secondary literature on the Jesuit missions in New France. [End Page 300]

Lisa J.M. Poirier
Department of Religious Studies, DePaul University


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pp. 299-300
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