Postmark Bayou Chene, by Gwen Roland

Bayou Chene no longer exists. Looking at a map of how riverbeds in the Atchafalaya Basin have changed over the last three hundred years, it was probably a matter of time before it disappeared. Gwen Roland’s Postmark Bayou Chene recreates Cajun life—using family stories, interviews, and documents—in the little community before the waters moved, before pollution ruined the ecosystem, and before people started moved from the backwoods to the cities.

Postmark Bayou Chene takes place over the very exciting (by bayou standards) year of 1907. Residents might argue that everything started with the arrival of a dog and a long-lost letter, but events were set in motion decades and months before we arrive in the bayou. Now, because a story has to start somewhere, I suppose a dog and a letter are as good a beginning anyway. First, the dog arrives with an empty skiff. Fate Landry and his cousin, Loyce Snellgrove, nurse the dog back to health. Meanwhile, the later delivery of a letter sets off literal and figurative explosions in an already contentious marriage. By the time things start to get sorted out, we’re already deep into the lively setting of Bayou Chene.

As the plot begins to roll, the narrative settles on Loyce. Loyce has been blind since she was a child. She claims not to miss colors or the sights of people’s faces; she is a fiercely determined woman who takes no crap from anyone. What she does regret about not being able to see is that she can’t take a walk off of paths she’s learned by heart. She has to rely on others to bring her news of the world. There’s so much that Loyce wants to know, but she can’t even read about it because she can’t get adult books in braille. Her cousin Fate and her friend, Val, who works on riverboats, share stories and songs and news when they stop by the bayou. The dog helps her become a little more independent but the disruption caused by the letter’s ripple effects leave Loyce as adrift as the dog was with the skiff.

Curiously enough, as I read Postmark Bayou Chene, I was reminded of Food of a Younger Land, a collection of essays written by authors with the Federal Writer’s Project about food and food-ways in the 1930s. That book also had me longing for a vanished past that I could taste. Rowland’s novel is peppered (heh) with dishes like fresh fried catfish, biscuits with creamed peas, honey from bees that live in tupelo wood hives. The Cajuns of the Atchafalaya learned to turn what seems to me like a place almost as deadly as Australia into a land of plenty.

The only sour note in Postmark Bayou Chene was the absence of people of color. Native Americans make very brief appearances; there are no Black people. I don’t know how racially homogeneous the Atchafalaya Basin was at the turn of the twentieth century. Perhaps it was as white as Rowland portrays it. The absence had me wondering if the presence of people of color would reveal the charming people of Bayou Chene as racists. I’m not comfortable with the idea of deliberate erasure, if indeed that’s what’s happening here.

In spite of my question, I would absolutely recommend this book to readers who are looking for a pastoral, homey book with interesting characters. This book is a great introduction to Cajun ways. Be prepared to start looking up recipes and making grocery lists while reading it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

Undated panorama of the Atchafalaya Basin (Image via Wikicommons)

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