"It's a mistake to believe...you control something wild."
Feb 20, 2009
Reflecting the turbulent history of Louisiana and the ungovernable Mississippi River, this novel, written while the protagonist awaits the full force of Katrina, harkens back to another devastating flood in 1927. Like the present day reality of lives in jeopardy, the earlier tragedy was also exacerbated by damaged levees and the sacrifice of one area of a population for another, in this case the destruction of Cypress Parish to save greater New Orleans, a flourishing city in the late 1920s. Now an elderly man reminiscing on his youth, Louis Proby begins his narrative at seventeen, on the cusp of manhood, a dutiful son with a love of learning. Although his father wants him to become a physician, Louis leans towards the natural sciences, describing the natural habitat of Cypress Parish through the eyes of one who would retain those images over the passing years.
William Proby, a logger and company-town superintendent, teaches his son some early lessons about survival in the world at large, taking Louis along as he deals with parish life. But Louis learns as well from the men he meets as a driver for a wealthy businessman, more sophisticated and worldly entrepreneurs, as well as experiencing the rush of first love with a woman he will never see again after the flood. In any case, the careful plans of many families are swept away by the rising tide of the Big Muddy, the levees unable to stave off the ravages of nature's excess and man's intemperate planning. To be sure, powerful men realize the enormity of the danger to the parish, dire warnings of the coming disaster reported months before it occurs, but such is the voracious nature of profit that a few wealthy men make decisions that will destroy the futures of those with no voice to ameliorate such decisions. Thus it happens, Cypress Parish is dynamited, inundated with flood water to save the more important and burgeoning New Orleans, all of Louis' childhood memories submerged in a watery grave.
Retelling his youth, Louis describes a father who is a fair but harsh taskmaster, the differences of white and black existence in 1927 Louisiana, the social construct that rigidly restricts congress between races and the occasional case of leprosy that continues to plague the area. Against the background of the beauty of a natural environment on the banks of the Mississippi, Louis' first brush with intimacy is beautifully framed by his inchoate desire and the pull of family responsibility, painfully torn by the choices he is forced to make. His family quartered with the whites during the flood, Louis doesn't report much of the scandalous treatment of blacks after the disaster, but does capture that particular nostalgia with which the elderly remember the distant days of childhood. For all the attraction of those days, clearly the same harsh societal restrictions continue to mar the image of a simple America. Albeit softened by memory, life is never as beneficent as it seems in one's youth. Luan Gaines.
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