Wed May 14, 2008
Poor Man's Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana
For years, Johnson, who was raised in Montgomery and studied journalism at Auburn, wrote four columns a week for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Unhappy with Atlanta traffic and that grueling pace, Johnson left the AJC in 2001. This has given her more time to write in a thoughtful, more leisurely way, and the result is Poor Man's Provence.
By Don Noble
Newspaper readers will know Rheta Grimsley Johnson because of her prizewinning syndicated column, appearing in more than fifty papers weekly. For years, Johnson, who was raised in Montgomery and studied journalism at Auburn, wrote four columns a week for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Unhappy with Atlanta traffic and that grueling pace, Johnson left the AJC in 2001. This has given her more time to write in a thoughtful, more leisurely way, and the result is Poor Man's Provence.
Ten years ago, Johnson and her husband, Don, then a UAB journalism professor, bought a small houseboat, the "Green Queen," and then a little house, in Henderson, Louisiana, deep in Cajun country. They both fell in love with Acadia and the people in it, and this book of linked essays is the result. With customary modesty, Johnson says many times that a newcomer, an outsider, can never really be one of them, but many Cajuns are now good friends and she has to come to understand that part of the world at least a little.
The chapters of Poor Man's Provence are organized by topic: Cajun family life and food, Acadian celebrations, and, most of all, wonderfully odd characters.
There are Americans who move and migrate and those who don't. Cajuns, like the inhabitants of Alabama's Sand Mountain, don't. Most children, when they marry, move a double-wide in behind their parents' house. Family is the topmost priority, of course, but food comes in a close second. Many Cajuns simply don't believe the food anywhere else is any good. And they are at least partly correct. (This all reminds me somewhat of the French, who take their vacations in the French mountains or at the French seaside. Why would a person ever want to leave France? And as for Parisians, they only leave Paris for thirty days a year, to go to a French holiday spot.)
Besides family and ?touff?e, gumbo and fresh baguettes, there is Acadian Mardi Gras, celebrated not as in Mobile or New Orleans, with parades and beads, but up and down the roads, from house to house, on horseback, masked.
There is also a good deal about the now hugely popular Cajun music, with the much-maligned accordion at the center. A joke: two traveling musicians run out of gas. They leave the car to get some. One says to the other, "You're not going to leave your accordion in the back seat with the car unlocked, are you?" The second replies, "No problem." When they return, there are two accordions in the back seat.
Johnson writes of many "characters" in Poor Man's Provence. There is, for example, Harry the Doughnut Bomber. Harry Broussard had been a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and flew a Piper Cub. He also rented houseboats to tourists. As a bit of lagniappe for his renters, Broussard would fly low and drop a bag full of hot doughnuts onto the rented houseboat. "I must have dropped two thousand dollars worth of doughnuts," he says. "Why? Because it was fun." Now that's the Cajun philosophy in a nutshell. Johnson describes most of her new friends and neighbors as carpe diem characters filled with joi de vivre. Life is short and to be lived and enjoyed.
Johnson, however, is not a fan of the Cajun sport of cockfighting. Louisiana may be the last legal refuge for this activity. And she is mightily ambivalent about the Angola prison rodeo and craft show. Prisoners, mostly lifers, risk life and limb for the visitors' entertainment, but the prisoners love the excitement and diversion so it might be crueler to stop it than to let it go on.
Obviously sympathetic to the culture of watery Acadia, Johnson is more than a little worried about it. The swamps and wetlands grow smaller and more polluted. French as a primary language is slowly being lost. Tourism is on the rise and, ironically, although we can wish Johnson as much success with this book as Peter Mayle had with A Year in Provence, in the world of unexpected consequences, any more popularity for Cajun country could lead to the flood of tourists and development that has forever changed French Provence.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.