Louisiana. What a great state for literature. Home to jazz and voodoo, swamp and plantations, artists, writers, drifters, and lost souls, Louisiana is fertile ground for novels rich with setting, mystique, and a search for truth. I had a hard time selecting from the several books I read, and I ultimately chose to highlight the books that provided the best sense of place for the cemetaries, Cajun and Creole culture, and steamy bayou of the Lousiana and New Orleans I know. Even though I am not writing up The Awakening, A Streetcar Named Desire, or A Confederacy of Dunces, I highly recommend all three in addition to the books below.
Novel: The Witching Hour
Author: Anne Rice, born New Orleans, LA
Setting: 1980s New Orleans
Category: Dark Fantasy/Horror, Southern Gothic
The Witching Hour captures the allure of New Orleans in exactly the way I wanted: dark, sultry, mysterious, haunted, Gothic. There are voodoo and ghosts and the Garden District, live oaks and wrought iron fences, and Victorian mansions with personalities and spirits. There are voodoo dolls and heads in jars, possessions and witches, honeysuckle, jasmine, cicadas, and French Creole names.
The Witching Hour follows the history of the Mayfair family, back 300 years to when Suzanne Mayfair, a commoner in Scotland, dabbled in witchcraft and called forth the spirit of Lasher, a dark-eyed, brown-haired man who is seen to this day at the Mayfair house on First Street in the Garden District of New Orleans. Throughout the generations, over 300 years, Lasher associated himself with the descendents of Suzanne, bringing both wealth and (seeming) insanity to the Mayfair family.
I hate to describe the plot because it doesn’t do the weaving of it justice.
Swamp this must have been once. A breeding place of evil.
This book is like a narcotic: the characters, the setting, the entanglement of the Mayfairs and a secret order who watches them, the occult, and the gauzy veil that falls over you while you read it. It is seductive and repulsive, beautiful and ugly, impossible to believe yet deliciously fun to imagine. The veil between worlds is thin in this book. The Witching Hour captures the dark undercurrents of New Orleans masterfully.
Novel: The Missing
Author: Tim Gautreaux, born Morgan City, LA
Setting: 1920s New Orleans and Mississippi River
Category: Historical Fiction
Set in the 1920s on a steamboat that travels up and down on the Mississippi River, The Missing took me into the jazz age of the deep New Orleans South. I loved the French interspersed throughout the novel, and the characters range from city-dwellers to folks who live so deep in the scrub and bayou you can’t even get to them — there are no roads.
In the story, a child is kidnapped under our Sam Simoneaux’s watch, and the novel is his search for her: he wants to make it right with the family she belongs to. This story is woven in with the loss of the Sam’s own family when he was a baby, and then his shelling a French girl’s home in WWI and her resulting orphaning because of his cannon fire.
The scenery is vivid: the bend of the steamboat’s dance floor under the pounding of 1000 feet two-stepping, the descriptions of the scrub forest, the accents and dialect of the characters, the feel of Louisiana through Sam’s story, family, and the novel’s characters.
My uncle never raised me to be big on revenge, you know? Most French people on the bayou are like that. Too poor to afford a grudge.
The Missing encompasses all sorts of missing things: missing children, missing family, the feeling you get when you miss those people, the missing (empty) parts of folks whose loved ones are missing. It is a story of being responsible for our actions, of justice verses revenge, and of all the things that are missing when the people in our lives are gone.
Novel: A Lesson Before Dying
Author: Ernest J. Gaines, born Pointe Coupee Parish (Louisiana)
Setting: 1940s fictitious Bayonne, LA
Categories: African-American literature, Historical Fiction
This book was an unexpected gem. I had never heard of it and added it at the last-minute despite having already read five books set in Louisiana, and I’m so glad I did.
Despite a story line that is hard to read, that makes me ashamed of our history and continued racism, of a black man wrongly accused, presumed guilty, and treated like an animal, this book has hope, pride, and a sense of goodness and dignity.
The story is of Jefferson, a black man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time when two other black men killed a white liquor store owner. Jefferson was the only person left alive at the scene, and despite being an innocent bystander he was promptly arrested and sentenced to death by electric chair. During his trial, Jefferson’s attorney defended him not on his innocence, but on the premise that he didn’t know any better because, as a black man, he was too ignorant to even know what he was doing at the liquor store.
Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.
The sentencing happens in the first chapter, and Jefferson, upon hearing he will be sentenced to death, loses all hope. He sees no point in believing himself to be any more than a farm animal, given how little control he has over his life.
The remainder of the novel is the protagonist, Grant Wiggins, the teacher at the black school, visiting Jefferson in jail, trying to convince Jefferson of his humanity. Wiggins does not want to do this. He want to run away from this awful, uncomfortable situation. But he does it because his aunt and Jefferson’s naanan pressure him to do so.
Miss Emma knows that the state of Louisiana is about to take his life, but before that happens she wants something to remember him by… She wants memories, memories of him standing like a man.
The treatment of blacks by whites in this book is shameful, and it was only 60-70 years ago. In this situation it seems there can be no hope. But Gaines writes this beautifully, and with great dignity. I felt strengthened at the end rather than defeated.
For Further Reading in Louisiana
Books I’ve read and recommend:
– The Awakening by Kate Chopin
– A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
– A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Books that have been recommended to me that I’ve not yet read:
– The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
– All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.