The title of this post paraphrases a reviewer’s quote on the back cover of Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s Poor Man’s Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana. Years back, Johnson, an award winning reporter and columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, attended a wild hog hunt in Cajun Louisiana. That weekend she began a love affair with the insular community of the Cajun people, which she has happily shared with us.
Johnson describes this slice of heaven (or hell, depending on your perspective) so realistically and somehow she makes you want to go right down there and experience this Southern locale. This has much to do with her skill as a narrator. Alligator and snake filled swamp waters, mosquitoes larger than horseflies, doublewide trailers, broken down cars, trucks and garbage along the side of the roads do not sound appealing to most people as the site of a vacation destination. But, something about the way Johnson describes the Cajun people and their culture, history and joie de vivre makes the reader realize how lucky she was to find this little heaven on earth along the Atchafalaya swamp.
Johnson does not hide from the historic Cajun tragedies or how they were evicted from their homes in Acadia (now Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, etc). But, she does not talk about families being separated with some forced to settle in the undesirable swamp land of Louisiana. Rather, she focuses on this group’s optimism and happiness instead of the negativity, poverty, racism, and hurricanes that have affected the area and its people.
The author’s anecdotes are always respectful, perhaps because she is always aware that she is not a native but an outsider who has the luxury to spend part of the year among these fascinating people. Each chapter can be read alone and gives a glimpse into the lives of the Cajuns who really do try to stay out of the limelight. The descriptions about how they celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, and, of course, the most important Louisiana holiday of all, Mardi Gras, add up to a rewarding reading experience.
The section on the Tool Shed Reading Club which the author created with some of her neighbor children makes one wish that all kids had someone to help them with homework and someplace to go after a long day of school when their Mama is still at work. Oh, and the dance halls, the king cakes, the beignets and the jazz all bring the bayou right to your doorstep — with no snakes or alligators in sight — as long as you read from the comfort of your easy chair.