Elise Blackwell

"Unnatural History of Cypress Parish "

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 20, 2007)

"If you were to place, side by side, the historical account of something that happened, a painting of it, and a scientific explanation of how and why it occurred, you might still not understand it unless, maybe, you lived through it yourself.  Even then, you'd succumb to forgetting.  An old man may remember the facts of his youth, but he cannot always remember what they felt like."

The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish by  Elise Blackwell

Writing from the point of view of elderly New Orleans native Louis Proby on the eve of Hurricane Katrina, author Elise Blackwell fills this novel with vibrant scenes of Cypress Parish, just to the south of New Orleans.  The present Cypress Parish, with its asphalt highway connecting it to New Orleans, its fast food restaurants, and its "noseful of stink that only a paper mill can churn out" offers a sharp contrast to the way of life in which the speaker grew up.  As he reminisces about "the water that rose in 1927," Louis tells about his childhood, his father, his family, and all the men whose names "mattered" before the flood.  "It is a few of these stories that I try to tell, mixing as best I can what I saw with my own eyes and what I understood later to be fact into the most complete picture I am capable of making," he explains, by way of introduction.
What follows is a beautifully realized story, a mixture of delicate lyricism with harsh reality, as Louis, then seventeen, discovers the way the world works, and especially the way it works in New Orleans.  Growing up part of a Baptist family in Cypress Parish, Louis tells about discovering love with one of his classmates, Nanette Lancon, entertaining himself and Nanette by inspecting muskrat houses and other natural phenomena along the river, learning about his father and his values, and depicting the everyday injustices of whites against blacks, including some in which he himself participates. 

Gradually, Louis learns about people like Charles Segrist, for whom he works one summer as a chauffeur, and Olivier Menard, who owns the Moorish Club casino and engages in bootlegging, men who control vast sums of money, and he becomes aware of the power of money to control political outcomes.  Not surprisingly, he learns that political success translates into control of life-and-death issues affecting the lives of thousands of "ordinary" citizens, like Louis's family.

Throughout the novel, and running parallel with Louis's personal story, is his story of the Mississippi River as it reaches flood stage, so intensely depicted that it assumes the status of a major character.  Whirlpools so fast and so big that they can swallow large animals, and even a house, reflect the turbulent and unpredictable currents which run beneath the seemingly placid surface.  As the river starts its ominous rise, flood bulletins issued by meteorologists are ignored, and the flooding from 1922, which damaged the French Quarter and left seventy thousand people homeless when a levee broke, is regarded as something that happened to "other people." 

As Louis observes the potential for flooding in 1927, long before the area was densely populated and fully developed, he comments on the New Orleans levee system, how it was built, and by what means the politicians control the release of its water.  And as the river reaches its crest, Louis's agonized understanding of how the world of men works also peaks, a realization so intense that he is compelled to tell us about it on the eve of Katrina, almost eighty years later.  The reader understands that the devastation of Katrina had its roots in events as early as 1927. 

From the outset Blackwell's wondrous descriptions and sense impressions create a vivid understanding of time and place, as she balances the most lyrical with the most realistic details.  Louis's fond reminiscences of "the marshy border that separates all that is good and bad of boyhood from all that is good and bad of manhood" are put into context when he also tells us that that "strange and wet spring…three men tried to kill my father."  In Grenada, Louis notes that the odor of the sugar factory blends with that of the abattoir.

Exceptionally precise, Blackwell wastes not a word, developing strong themes of growing up, learning responsibility, and respecting the natural world—all this while resisting the temptation to tug at the heartstrings by drawing obvious parallels with the recent Katrina disaster.  The novel gains universality through the inclusion, throughout the novel, of quotations from the Pliny the Elder's Natural History, Louis's favorite book.  These observations place the disaster of the Mississippi flooding within the context of ancient history and draw parallels between the notes of Louis and the observations of the classical historians.  Beautifully crafted and exceptionally well realized, this short novel is a literary jewel.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews

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About the Author:

Elise BlackwellElise Blackwell was born in Austin, Texas in 1964 and grew up in southern Louisiana. Her parents were both botanists.

She has worked as a journalist, instructor, freelance writer, and translator. She earned an MFA in writing from the University of California at Irvine where she studied with Pulitzer-Prize winning author Michael Chabon.

She is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate English program at the University of South Carolina.

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