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Arvida

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Thomas Hellman's fifth book in the 10 Essential Books series is Samuel Archibald's Arvida.

Arvida is a real town in Quebec, built as a company town in 1927. 

It was designed to be an ideal community for worker at the nearby aluminium smelter. 

The author, Samuel Archibald, is from Arvida. He mixes fact, fiction and folklore in the book of short stories. 


Listen to Thomas explain why he thinks everyone should read Arvida.
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Arvida, Samuel Archibald's first book, was published in the fall of 2011 to much critical acclaim. It received the "Coup de coeur Renaud-Bray" prize and was nominated for the "prix littéraire des collégiens" and the "Prix des libraires". 

Within a few months, Samuel Archibald became something of a literary "star" in Quebec, appearing on radio and in magazines. His book generated a new interest in the Saguenay region and in the town of Arvida in particular, where Archibald's stories are based. 

The city of Arvida was founded in 1927 by American millionaire Arthur Vining Davis, to house workers of the Alcoa Aluminum Company (which eventually became Rio Tinto Alcan). The city was constructed in 135 days and attracted workers from all around the world. 

It helped create some of the materials the allied forces needed to manufacture their weaponry in the Second World War. This led some of Arvida's residents to claim that, without their city, the Germans might have won the war. 

Some even tried to get the city recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. The author gently pokes fun at this initiative for it goes against what he sees as the very essence of Arvida : that it is a place on the outskirts of history ("rigoureusement en dehors de l'histoire"), one of those forgotten places on the huge map of America where History is not made, but great stories are born... And die, unless someone writes them down. And that is what Samuel Archibald did. 

When reading this book, you feel like you are eavesdropping on family secrets, scandals, the kind of stories you might hear from a father, an uncle, your grandmother, or the half-crazy old family friend just down the street. Mythical tales that survive and evolve through word of mouth, half-way between truth and fantasy, but an integral part of the collective identity.  

The author introduces us to various Arvida residents, including his own father, his grandmother.... The stories go back and forth in time. Certain characters reappear from story to story. Sometimes we read about one of the character's road trips in the sixties, while certain stories describe hunting and fishing adventures, house-building, peewee hockey... 

What makes a short story great is very much the writing: The ability, within a short text, to capture the complexity of a character, or the existential and emotional depth of an event through small but revealing details. This is very true in Archibald's book. 

His written language is at times closer to spoken regional québécois French, at others more traditional in its narrative approach. But it is always very finely sculpted, revealing, extremely telling in its capacity to bring stories to life. 

His characters are complex and multi-faceted, his descriptions are very evocative, the book is full of humour and tenderness, but it is at times very dark as well. 

There is a little bit of the Québécois "conteur" (oral story-telling) tradition in Archibald's book. But this is in no way a folkoric universe. The writing is very literary, the stories are full of existential depth and the city they describe is very much part of our own modernity. 

The book describes a very specific part of the word, this small city of Arvida, but these stories have something universal and timeless about them. In many ways Arvida is a metaphor for America, a place were people sought to escape the past and build a new life, found beauty, disappointment, pettiness, nobililty, and an endless wealth of unwritten (but sometimes written) stories. 

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