Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Blue Camellia

A few weeks ago a name from way back cropped up in conversation with a friend, one that was immediately known to me not because of any familiarity with her work, but because at one time during my youth her name was not uncommon on bestseller lists. And possibly because she lived in New Orleans and wrote novels about Louisiana, it was a name more prominent that many in my small world of South Louisiana.


Frances Parkinson Keyes (the last name rhymes with 'skies’) was born in 1885 in Virginia, grew up in Vermont and Boston, lived most of her adult life in and around Washington D.C. and yet much of her fiction is linked firmly to Louisiana. The writer first visited New Orleans at the age of fifty-five and was fascinated by the city. Her first Louisiana novel set in New Orleans came out in 1942, and three years later she moved permanently to the city. She followed that first Louisiana tale with a dozen or so romance stories set in Louisiana, the most famous novel and the only mystery she wrote, Dinner at Antoine’s published in 1948. An outstanding feature of these Louisiana books is the extensive research. While writing her books, Keyes immersed herself in the history, culture and society of her characters in order to create an authentic milieu. Throughout her life she remained dedicated to her craft and maintained a rigorous writing schedule. She wrote more than fifty novels, biographies and memoirs.


Deciding it was time I learned a little more about this writer who dedicated so much of her work to the Louisiana of my childhood, I went to the library to see what I could find. Even though Keyes was a popular author of the 1940s and 50s, existing editions of her books are becoming rare, and many libraries have weeded her books from their shelves. For those looking to buy, there is fortunately still a trade in her books on Amazon, eBay and other auction sites. My local library didn’t have anything by Keyes on the shelves, but requesting titles from other libraries in the county proved easy. Using the “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” method, I came up with the novel published in 1957, Blue Camellia.


Blue Camellia is centered upon a rice farm set in the prairies of South Louisiana. Brent Winslow, his wife Mary and young daughter Lavinia are transplanted midwesterners who arrive in Cajun country in the year 1887 to build a new life. A story closely wrapped in Cajun culture, it is told through the eyes of these outsiders. Blue Camellia paints a picture of the development of south Louisiana from swampland to productive rice farms, and effectively describes society and conventions of the area and historical period. It is historical fiction written in a style of women writing for women readers and from what I understand similar in that style to many books by Keyes. That said, she is deserving of readers contemporary or otherwise. Unfortunate that her books are one by one being shed from public library collections.


Frances Parkinson Keyes had six top ten bestsellers between 1945 and 1957. Blue Camellia rose to number five on the 1957 bestseller lists. The writer died in New Orleans at the age of eighty-four.

3 comments:

  1. Sounds like something I might like if I can find it on the library shelf.

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  2. Not a writer I read but was very aware of her and knew many of her novels were set in Louisiana. So there was some influence that the history and the landscape of sugarcane fields and still-water bayous held much allure to the larger reading public. And the benefit to a writer of such fiction is exploring the history of a region and letting the facts and circumstances color that fiction

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