While Hurricane Katrina’s baleful eye bores down on the Gulf Coast and newscasters call for mass evacuation, predicting inundation of New Orleans, time pauses for Louis Proby. Perceiving the irony of his fate, Louis remembers another calamity: the 1927 flood when “men with money and the power to change things” persuaded Louisiana’s governor to order the levee protecting his home town, Cypress Parish, dynamited to save New Orleans.
The weather reports fade to the background as Louis opens a binder containing his research of Cypress Parish’s natural history. He recalls his youthful innocence and idealism, and their loss before his 17th birthday — all part of life before the flood. But, mostly Louis remembers loving Nanette Lancon.
Blackwell’s literary novel, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, is based on fact. She credits John M. Barry’s Rising Tide, and her grandfather’s unpublished memoirs as history sources for her narrative that examines the poor and powerless of Cypress Parish pitted against the rich and powerful of New Orleans at the approach of impending disaster. “If you want to understand how something works… threaten that society… and its true nature will reveal itself,” writes Barry. That hypothesis is the core of Blackwell’s Cypress Parish.
Louis Proby narrates a dismal reality of people living in dirt poverty compounded by instinctive shame in "where they came from.” He tells of “men whose names mattered before the flood” inviting him to their world of money and power; a world of uneducated men wise in wisdom gained from experience; and a world of racism and hard-won friendship. He tells of his family and the parish people whose lives were changed forever — disrupted by the flood.
Blackwell’s literary gift lies in her ability to create a sense of place that comes from growing up “south of south” in Louisiana. Louis explains, “Who I am remains intimately gnarled with where I came from.” He sees himself and the land as one, “marked by the conditions where the tree was grown.” Elise Blackwell’s writing is steeped in the same rich soil.
The cypress tree symbolizes the parish and Blackwell’s themes of loss, destruction and life disrupted by man’s short-sighted intervention. Louis says: "The most important thing I had written, I understood, was that the bald cypress could live three-thousand years. It takes more than a century for a cypress tree to mature enough to produce good lumber; today cypress is mostly harvested young and sold as mulch."
Blackwell’s characters are hauntingly memorable. They change the way trees change that have endured the onslaught of decades of harsh weather — change that scars more than grows; but, perhaps on a deeper level survival is growth. Louis is like the Cypress tree, he survives. Now on the eve of Hurricane Katrina at age 95, he remembers his unfinished life in Cypress Parish, and he regrets that he didn’t say good-bye to Nanette.
Aside from the sheer enjoyment of reading Blackwell’s writing, I grew in my understanding of humanity through Cypress Parish. I recommend it highly.
You can read original reporting of the 1927 Flood at Time Archives and experience original voices and graphics of the flood at PBS Fatal Flood of 1927. You can also listen to Unbridled Aloud Podcasts.
On writing "The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish," Blackwell said:
My fictional Cypress Parish is a combination of St. Bernard Parish (where the 1927 levee breech occured), Livingston Parish (where my grandfather grew up) and Vermillion Parish (where my grandfather wooed my grandmother away from a house of pretty French sisters).
When I was a kid, my grandfather saw that I liked to write and offered to pay me a dollar a story. When I became too prolific for his wallet, he told me to keep writing but not for money. Late in his life, he picked up a pen of his own and started chronicling his years growing up in rural Louisiana as well as his later experiences in war, study, and life. He did this not with an eye toward publication but so that his grandchildren would know him better, would know more family history. He gave us the new chapters every Christmas, the white copy-shop boxes sitting under the tree with our other presents. He wrote these memoirs on a cypress desk and under a lumber company map of the parish where he grew up. It would take me a long time to get around to this material, but the image stayed with me. I knew from the start that desk and map would sneak into the novel.
Blackwell's debut novel is Hunger. She is on the English faculty at The University of South Carolina.
The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, Elise Blackwell, Book, Not yet published
Hunger, Elise Blackwell
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America
John M. Barry