Annapolis Alum Makes Publishing Debut
August 25, 2018 | By Kimberly Uslin
When David Vermette (A85) began researching Franco-American immigration 35 years ago at St. John’s, he had no idea that what he’d learn would eventually become his first book … or how undeniably prescient it would all seem in 2018.
Vermette’s debut nonfiction text, A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans, will be published September 15 from Baraka Books. Subtitled “Industrialization, Immigration, Religious Strife,” the book explores the virtually unremembered phenomenon of mass French-Canadian immigration to the United States during the 19th century textile boom—and the hardships that followed for Franco-American families.
His interest in the topic was far from arbitrary; Vermette is a descendant of this generation of immigrants. Having grown up in an English-speaking household in Massachusetts, however, he admits that he hadn’t thought much about his Franco-American roots until his father’s death.
“My father died when I was in my second year at St. John’s,” he says. “When we went to the burial in Maine, the priest came to read the prayers at the gravesite and the first thing he said was ‘French or English?’ I started researching my family, and then the circles of research just became wider and wider.”
Over the course of more than three decades, both the shape of and need for Vermette’s story became clear. He says there was little writing or research done on the million French-Canadians who had entered the United States between 1840 and 1930—but, even more critically, there was virtually no attention paid to the mistreatment and prejudice they faced.
“It’s really an unknown episode in U.S. immigration history,” he says. “It’s significant now, because we think what’s happening on our southwestern border is unique and unprecedented, and it’s just not. On the northeastern border 120 years ago, there were issues of bilingualism, nativism, concerns that ‘they weren’t sending us their best people,’ worries about the political leanings of the immigrants, et cetera. We’ve been down this road before, but no one knows about it. I think that’s really the surprising thing.”
In fact, Vermette says the parallels between historical and contemporary immigration could provide a useful perspective.
“No one today would think of French-Canadian people as particularly threatening or particularly different from white-identifying U.S. citizens,” he says. “They certainly wouldn’t think of them as dangerous, but back then they did. I think that’s a lesson we can learn: that the other of yesterday becomes the familiar today.”
Vermette hopes to expand his extensive research into another book, focusing on the relationship between the French, the Canadiens, and the indigenous peoples in North America. After decades of doing research for others professionally, he says he’s happy to “own something of [his] own.”
With thanks, he adds, to St. John’s. His education helped him land his first researching job, which turned into the Oxford Guide for Classic Mythology in the Arts (and where he was able to apply his experience in Greek, Latin, and Classics). More globally, his time at St. John’s helped him to learn how to read and write with intention.
“I’ve worked for authors, nonprofits, businesses, consulting firms … I take information and I turn it into stories,” he says. “St. John’s was extremely important in teaching me how to read a text, how to extract the most important themes and the most important quotes, and how to contextualize.”
“I spent a lot of time in the library,” he adds. “That was like my second home. I would just peruse the shelves and look at the information that was there, not really in any systematic way, be it German philosophy or the Civil War. St. John’s was the most formative episode in my life intellectually, there’s no question about that. The conversations that I had still resonate, the people I met there I’m still friends with, and the best conversations I have are with people I met at St. John’s.”
More information on Vermette’s debut book can be found at barakabooks.com.