Thursday, June 29, 2017

La Valse du Bayou Serpent (The Bayou Serpent Waltz)

When I started this novel, I was a graduate student at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana Lafayette. I had two goals at that time: 1. Show how a horrific crime could affect a small community. 2. Show how modernity had affected the Cajun culture. Over many years, the story has expanded to include a few other themes, some light-hearted satire, and some comedy, as well as mystery. Those intentions aside, I hope I have created a fictional work that entertains the reader.
The Bayou Serpent WaltzHere's the story in a nutshell: Someone killed Allain Babineaux just outside of Joe's Saloon. This event affects just about everybody in the community of Serpentville (pronounced sɜːpənt  vɪl  or serponville) and Ellison Parish. The sheriff is up for reelection and wants the case solved before the governor visits the parish seat. Jonel Pipe (pronounced peep), the local deputy sheriff wants to solve the case, so he can have access to his mother-in-law's money mattress. Modena Pipe, his wife, uses the time he's away to learn English and get new teeth. Deputy Argus Monroe, the "outsider," in a culture he has a hard time comprehending, wants to arrive at the truth and hates the sheriff's "shortcuts." Amanda Babineaux, Alain's wife, who worked hard at making her husband as miserable as he made her, blames herself for his death, perhaps with good reason. Beatrice Peterson, Amanda's sister, and Alain's old girlfriend hated Alain and is glad he's dead. Could she have killed him? Viola Fontenot, soap opera addict and card reader, looks at the murder as a "real" soap opera. Pete LaSache, storyteller and clairvoyant, knows who killed Alain, drops hints in his stories, but nobody listens. Slim Lebleau and Alain Babineaux often frequented The Four Corners houses of prostitution on the outskirts of Ellisonville along with him. Could he know who killed him? Phoebe, the prostitute, who knows the truth about Sheriff Franklin, has the "hots" for Argus. They, along with the other inhabitants of Serpentville and Ellison Parish, try to solve, or take advantage of, the Babineaux murder in their own unique ways.
So now that you know a little about the plot and the characters, let me tell you a little about myself. I was born and raised just outside the little community of Chataignier, Louisiana. My father was illiterate, and my mother had a seventh-grade education. When my father aged, and realized that share-cropping with mules would never provide adequately for his family, he packed up and moved us to Chataignier where he secured a job at the Courville Lumber Yard and then the cotton gin. He died of cancer a few years later. My mother went on welfare, and took on odd jobs, ironing, cleaning houses, gutting game, whatever paid. She was an avid soap opera follower, and I grew up with General Hospital, As the World Turns, One Life to Live, The Edge of Night, and myriad other shows playing on our old black and white television. She also read cards, and she and her two friends, Miss Kathleen and Madame Ya, would sit around a table and flip cards. I give you a glimpse of that in the story, but my mother would create long complex scenarios around her cards. When all the card-reading was over and each scenario explored in detail, they gossiped about the soaps. That's a part of my life, and I drew heavily on it for Viola's character. The incident and the other characters, all are fabricated from imagination.
I struggled mightily with the title. Over the years, I have considered Public Eyes, The Alain Babineaux Murder, The Bayou Serpent Soap—okay, I'm not particularly proud of that one—Modena, and The Bayou Serpent Two-Step, but a while back I listened to Nathan Abshires' "La Valse de Choupique," and I decided to title my novel La Valse du Bayou Serpent with an English subtitle. I did so for three reasons. One, I wanted to be clear that this novel was about Cajuns. Two, it is well known that Cajuns love their music and a clear majority of the waltzes, the ones I've listened to anyway, deal with everyday emotional problems reminiscent of the crying-in-your-beer country western songs. Three, many of those Cajun waltz lyrics remind me of soap operas. Take, for example, "La Valse de Choupique." The singer's woman has left him, and he tells her she will see her error, but then it will be too late. (By the way, there's an interesting video of the song where the woman ends up in a house of prostitution https://goo.gl/X36Hg1. I had no idea.) In another Abshire waltz, "Valse du Rêveur," the singer dreams that he holds his love in his arms, but when he wakes, he realizes she's not there, and he cries. He ends with a plea for her not to forget him. Another example is Iry Lejeune's "J'ai Fait une Grosse Erreur," my Tante Nola's favorite song. The singer leaves home and vows never to come back, but he soon realizes he made a big mistake when he sees his woman in the arms of another and how happy she is.
Finally, my purpose was not to denigrate the Cajuns, although we do occasionally laugh at Jonel, Modena, Etna, Slim, and Ernesto, but to show their determination and ingenuity when faced with adversity. In my opinion, Modena's character reflects that most clearly. Faced with an appalling upbringing and an insensitive husband, she perseveres and turns disadvantage into advantage. The same traits are evident in Viola, Pete, Etna, and Jonel, albeit, with him, in a rather sneaky way.
The story is set in the early 70s. Vietnam and the civil rights battle are still raging. Radio and television are bringing the outside world to the inhabitants of the little community, and changing how they see it and themselves.

I hope you decide to read my book, and if you do, you like it. It has been a pleasure writing it and sharing it with you.

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