In Louisiana, I had the terrific good fortune to meet with some wonderful people. The librarians and staff at the Cameron Parish Library and the Calcasieu Parish Public Library, in particular, deserve more praise than I can offer for their patience and help during my trip. I also am tremendously grateful for the volunteers at the Vermillionville historical village — the experts in history and culture were fantastically helpful and informative, and the re-enactors gave me an excellent sense of the Cajun people who lived in the area, complete with accents, expressions, and personal stories. Also, the woman working the register in the gift shop was exceptionally friendly and helpful (or, maybe not “exceptionally” — friendly and helpful tends to be the rule in the South): she talked to me about the area and the food, and she eventually directed me to the Acadian Village, complete with discount on admission there.
The staff in the Southwest Louisiana Lake Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau also were terrifically helpful, and they directed me not only to some important historical sites around Lake Charles but also out to Vermillionville and the Acadian Village, as well as the Cajun Village in Sorrento (though I couldn’t get out quite that far this trip, I regret it, as I’ve recently discovered the excellent blog of the Cajun Village’s marketing director, Justin Newhart — you should check it out).
I also want to thank Gay M. Gomez, a researcher on Louisiana wetlands. I met her at the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, where she volunteers in the Visitor Center, and she provided a lot of helpful information not only about the plantlife but also about the history of the area. And she, too, was delightfully friendly — she even wrote down my name and promised to keep an eye out for my book when I get it published.
But it wasn’t just the academic experts I appreciated. The locals, the experts on living in the area, were fascinating and helpful as well.
In Cameron, the only store is Family Dollar, but it was right next to the Cameron Motel, so I was in there almost daily the first half of my trip. I wound up in a kind of piecemeal conversation with the main cashier, bits of dialogue spread over several visits. The first time I was wearing my backpack, and she asked if I was just passing through, as though I were some romantic itinerant breezing into town. I told her I was in town to do some research for a book (I was on my way to library, actually). On another trip to the store, she told me how her mother had come from Maryland, where her parents had kicked her out of the house for getting pregnant. Which is how they came to Cameron, Louisiana. She said most folks had come there from somewhere else. Another trip, she asked me what sort of books I wrote, so I told her I was currently working on a historical novel set in the area. She looked at me askance and said “You won’t find much history around here. It’s all gone, from the storms or just people leaving.”
Just outside of town there are still twisted hulks of cars, the glass gone and the trim rusting, slumped in the ditches and the marsh. Tossed or washed there by Hurricanes Rita and Ike. They’re still sitting there, after all these years. No one’s ever bothered to move them. It’s eerie — it’s like the hurricane just blew through a few months ago. It was also a stark reminder that my aunt Jeanette and uncle Brad had been driven out of the bayou by the hurricanes.
My aunt and uncle laughed when I told them where I was staying. “There ain’t nothing out there,” my aunt joked. Of course, having lived out in that area for decades, she then began to direct me to a couple of good restaurants in the town of Creole, a bit farther north and less affected by the hurricanes.
Another uncle, Bill, also laughed about my staying in Cameron. I told him, “I know I’m in the middle of nowhere, but I’m also in the middle of everywhere I need to be this trip.” He joked, “You’re in the middle of two gators, maybe!”
Back at Brad and Jeanette’s, Brad asked what my book was about. I told him it was about two women trying to survive alone in the bayou.
He said, “Shoot, that is hard. You can’t do it. You can’t live alone out there in the bayou.” (In his thick accent, he pronounces bayou as “buy” with just a hint of an aspiration, like “uh,” at the end.)
Then Brad told me a story about “two old boys” who had taken a girl into the bayou on a boat, just to ride around, but they’d gone out there in the wrong time of year, when the water was still cold but the mosquitos were in full force. “The skeeters is terrible out there, and they started getting eat up by all them skeeters, couldn’t get away from them. So those boys jumped out the boat, jumped into the bayou to try and get away from the skeeters, but they got caught in the mud. That girl stayed in the boat, but them boys got stuck in the mud and couldn’t get out the bayou and they died there from hypothermia. The bayou is dangerous. It’ll kill you.”
Of course, my aunt and uncle survived the bayou just fine. They’re the kind of rugged, determined people who know the land, understand it. It took three floods and two direct hits from hurricanes to finally drive them out of the bayou, but my uncle Brad, especially, still waxes nostalgic, remembering his four horses and his hutch of rabbits, his duck blind and deer blind, his land. You can hear the weight of what he’s lost — and what he still carries around with him — in his voice when he talks about home.
I’d like to think that my aunt and uncle are the emotional heart of the novel I’ve written. Not just the rough and rugged romance of Buford and the girl, but also the connection to the land that Buford and the old woman feel, and the yearning for it even in the face of hardship.
And despite all the scoffing and joking about how empty Cameron Parish is these days, there are still plenty of people happily sticking in the area and preserving old traditions. Driving along highways 27 and 82, I kept seeing cars parked on roadsides and young couples, some in their teens or early twenties, mucking around in the ditches and canals with nets and traps, crawfishing. These are the dates they go on. Or I would see families at bayou-side “recreation areas,” the only recreation to do being fishing, kids with poles and parents dipping nets into the water while gray pelicans glided in military formation out over the water. At the Jetty Pier Park in Cameron, middle-aged couples fished with long poles out in the Gulf while whole caravans of families lined up in massive RVs and sat in folding chairs, barbecuing and blasting zydeco on stereos.
I found a lot of excellent historical facts and botanical details on my trip to Louisiana, immensely helpful information, but these people were the main reason I’d come to Louisiana. I wanted to meet my own characters. I wanted to know that I had been careful with the culture and the dialect. I’m sure I still get things wrong here and there, but I respect these people — some of whom are my own family — and I want to do right by them in the novel. I want to know that I’ve conveyed their strength as well as my characters’ quirks, their humanity as well as my characters’ occasional inhumanity, and how their determination expressed in my characters help my characters survive their desperate circumstances.
I need to thank some other people as well: Sarah Loghin and Max Hooper, both from Cajun blood, for their feedback, ideas, and strong encouragement as I posted updates about the trip on Facebook; my writer friend Erin Entrada Kelly, who turned me on to the research of Kelby Ouchley and later directed me to excellent food and beer in Lake Charles (her hometown) — you should keep an eye out for her upcoming novel set in the region (see her website); all my friends and family who expressed such enthusiasm for my updates on the trip and for the book in general; and especially to my family: my parents for driving all the way out there from the middle of Texas to see me, my aunts and uncles — Brad and Jeanette, Bill and Sherri, Jay — and my great-aunt Lydia and my cousins Jo Anne and Ted for feeding me good homegrown vegetables and taking us all out to visit the graves of my grandparents. And to my Grandma, whose letters about growing up in Louisiana and stories about our family helped me understand so much about so many things; and to my Papa (it’s pronounced “paw paw”), whose quiet strength and fearlessness will always inspire me (and whose excellent gumbo I will never forget). I miss them both, and I am so grateful to have been able to visit their graves this trip.