by Ken Wells
A review by Gary M. Lavergne for the Austin American-Statesman
April 16, 2000
Meely LaBauve is a nice, 15-year-old Cajun boy who loves his trashy daddy. They live in a shack on the "lonesome end of Bayou Catahoula" in the swamps of Louisiana. Meely has been compared to Huckleberry Finn, and sometimes he talks like Forrest Gump would if Gump were a Cajun.
Expatriate Cajuns, like me, know too well of the shameless defacing of our music, food, language and culture. Travel is often frustrating for a Cajun. In Neuman, Arkansas, a restaurant once displayed a sign: "Today's Special - Cajun Tamales." That is like asking for a Spanish pizza. Paul Prudhomme, the most famous of Cajun Chefs, lamented: "There is no such thing as a Cajun potato chip." Most of the world believes that Cajun food is coated with cayenne dust and seared until blackened. I have never seen such cooking in a Cajun home. As a history teacher in Louisiana, I saw a documentary film, produced by Encyclopedia Britannica, edited to strongly suggest that Cajuns used their children to lure alligators. Particularly infuriating is what some believe about us as a people: Two colleagues of mine from New York City, and a guest from Missouri, were once asked what they knew about Cajuns; one answered, "David Duke."
That is why, on its face, a novel about Meely LaBauve, written by a guy named Wells, who lives in New Jersey and works for the Wall Street Journal, seems like just another blasphemy. But it is not. By page four, when Meely says "Daddy, him, he don't make me," I knew that book had been written by someone from south Louisiana. Ken Wells grew up in Bayou Black. He understands how it is possible for a "dog to speak French," and what it means to look at a pile of steaming, boiled crawfish and "not eat the dead ones." Meely LaBauve is a delightful ride into the heart of Cajunland during the early 1960s.
Meely is short for Emile. According to Meely, his father, Logan LaBauve, "lost interest" in everything when his mother and baby sister died during childbirth. Since then, Meely has had touching dreams about what it would be like to have a mother and a baby sister, who he calls Katy. Logan is a gator hunter and is often away from home for days. He can be hunting, trapping, or in jail. Meely doesn't always know when his daddy will return, so he lives off of the swamp. He is a boy who believes newly-tilled dirt smells good, and is fascinated by the behavior of the animals that surround him. Here, Wells is a master of the inside joke: "Most people would be surprised at what chickens will eat. I know I am." Anyone who grew up raising chickens knows precisely what this means.
But what really sets Meely LaBauve apart is how Wells fully understands how French Louisiana is distinct from its Deep South surroundings. There is a fraternity, of sorts, among the hardcore rural poor that nearly transcends racism. Along the bayou, hatred is a tool for the "haves," and it is directed, often without regard to race, to the "have nots." Meely's first sexual experiment is in a cornfield with Cassie, a black girl. Cassie's mother, "Miz Jackson," treats Meely with kindness and tenderness, and tells Meely how she enjoyed sitting at the table for coffee with his mother. She even nurses him after an attack by Junior Guidry and his band of bullies. To Meely, people who used the "n word" were "idjits." When Cassie tells Meely that one day colored and white kids will all go to the same school, Meely replies: "Cassie, it don't matter to me so long as I don't have to figger algebra." For those of us white folk who'd rather not be called an Anglo, who picked cotton, dug potatoes, took in hay, cut cane, and rested in the shade of magnificent oak trees while speaking French with African-Americans, Meely LaBauve is refreshing, indeed. For the "idjits" who think David Duke is a Cajun, it is educational.
Wells also skillfully avoided the overuse of phonetic spelling to illustrate the Cajun accent. His text gives flavor, not frustration, to what Cajuns call Franglish. His characters are memorable. Francis Hebert is a wealthy landowner who would rather not see his son, Joey, associate with Meely; "Miz Lirette" is Meely's teacher - and she is a living saint. Beyond the main characters is a host of unique names that make the story rich: Chickie Naquin, who "don't always wash," Hog Arceneaux and his dog Picou, Alphonse Dorsey, Chilly, Nootsie, and Father Giroir. Simply delightful.
Ken Wells became hugely successful covering environmental disasters like the Exxon Valdez spill and the Gulf War oil fires. I suspect such experiences enhanced his respect for the swamp surrounding his native land. "We had little, but we were not allowed to believe we were poor," Wells told me recently. Meely LaBauve reminds us that we don't need more food than we can eat, and that how much land we have, or how much money we make for our company, does not measure our worth. Meely knows that better than most of us. "It's peaceful out here with the moon shinin' through the trees and grasshoppers sawing in the reeds and frogs barkin' in the ponds and the slap of our paddles on the water… Sometimes we just quit paddlin' and sit quiet and listen to the swamp rustle all around us. There's about a million live things in the swamp."
For a kid who can't figger algebra, Meely LaBauve is pretty damn smart. If you have already "seen the world through the eyes of Forrest Gump," then see it again - through the eyes of Meely LaBauve.