Saturday, October 9, 2010

Ole Man River

Always a good feeling to come across a book and a writer you like, but it’s made even better when you know there are other books by the same writer that you can follow through with. This was exactly my experience with Elise Blackwell and her 2007 novel, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish. The book was recommended to me by a friend whose opinion I respect, and not long after our conversation the book landed in my mailbox.

Pretty much a habit for me to open a book and read the first paragraph, or first page, a way of helping determine where to put the book in my to-read stack. Ms Blackwell’s first paragraph in The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish was such that I reread it three or four times and then put the book on top of my stack. It’s what I call an opening you see only once every year or two in the course of daily reading.

“I am a man far removed from his origins—by miles, by years, and by more intangible measures. Every piece of wood, no matter how refined and sanded, is marked by the conditions where the tree was grown. The mix of nutrients in the soil and air, the shifts in temperature and humidity, high winds and lightning, the damage from insects and wood-boring birds, and cultivation—the human history of the land—leave their evidence. Who I am remains intimately gnarled with where I came from. And where I came from is the place making the news, the place in the line of fire, soon to be the eye of the storm. Though I’ve pruned from my speech all traces of accent, I’m from south of south. I am from Cypress Parish, Louisiana.”

On the eve of Hurricane Katrina, an elderly Louis Proby, recalls the great flood of his small Louisiana town in 1927, the year he crossed from boyhood to manhood. Louis is the son of Cypress Parish’s superintendent, William Proby, a man who after climbing the ranks in local logging finds himself forced by circumstance to compromise himself in deals with laborers as well as casinos in order to please the wealthy barons of power. A dutiful son, Louis is a reluctant witness to his father’s deals. The boy’s understanding of life is green, while at the same time his senses are blurred by first love for the French girl, Nanette Lançon. Louis is offered the job of driving lumber company official Charles Segrist to and from New Orleans, and thereby given entree into the posh but seedy clubs of New Orleans. Through Segrist his eyes are opened not only to prostitutes and hard drinking, but to back deals with Isleños bootleggers and plans to blow up a Cypress Parish levee, thus flooding the area in order to save New Orleans. He learns too that his father is not unaware of this plan that threatens the lives and homes of Cypress Parish residents. As an old man, Louis is still haunted by regrets from that year in his life, still trying to understand clearly and proving that the old adage, ‘hindsight is twenty-twenty’ is not always the case.

As I read the novel, one of the first questions that arose was the meaning of ‘unnatural’ in the title of the book. It takes a good part of the novel, but it becomes clear that the life and property of Cypress Parish were unnaturally sacrificed to protect business interests in New Orleans. We learn near the end that the loss of life and property brought on by dynamiting the levee was unnecessary in saving New Orleans. Exploding the levee prevented a natural, less costly outcome of the Mississippi River’s swollen threat of inundation. There were no blasted levees with Katrina seventy-eight years later, but the parallels are obvious.

The major character in the book could almost be called the Mississippi River. The story is heightened by the writer’s coloring of the mighty river, and what is almost an endowment of personality. The currents, the magnificent house-swallowing whirlpools, the muddy churning highlighted by colors you least expect, and the geography-shifting behavior of alluvial silt violently, magically thrusting newly created islands to the surface.

The young narrator Louis is a burgeoning naturalist who keeps journals on the natural setting he lives in. One of his favorite writers is Pliny the Elder, and Blackwell enriches her story by juxtaposing Pliny’s writings on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD with the building ‘eruption’ of the Mississippi upon Cypress parish. It is skillful interweaving of natural histories, ancient and modern.

The boy Louis has a faulted character for which we have the greatest sympathy. He is a young man who takes pride in his understanding of the natural world, but in his youth possesses minimal and immaturely skewed understanding of why his father and others do the things they do. Blackwell has given her narrator a host of dichotomies to deal with—torn between city and country, art and science, family vs the girl he loves, home and the world outside, and finally past and future.

As readers, we all like a good story with richly layered characters. Most of us also look for a style or prose that stands apart from the bland narrative of too many ‘bestsellers’ touted by booksellers and celebrity reviewers. Elise Blackwell writes in an elegant, yet natural style that propels her story, enlivens her characters, and yet at the same time stops her reader on occasion with a need to reread a particularly well-wrought passage of plain unadorned beauty. Briefly said, the woman can write. Like those on Pliny the Elder, the interludes of history about the leprosy hospital in Carville, Louisiana are shimmering in Ms Blackwell’s hand.

As one who grew up in Louisiana, I am drawn to stories about the state, with all its mistakes and foibles and crooked politicians. The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish however is a story I would encourage any book lover to read, with a guarantee that the chances of disappointment are slim.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America