Poor boys

“It’s nice to see Louisiana made strange again,” a Baton Rougean told Robin Kistler of the latest One Book One Community selection, Poor Man’s Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana. Each year, the group picks two titles for the Baton Rouge community to read together and discuss en masse. While the books don’t have to be about Louisiana or the South, the committee readers do look for cultural relevance for their local audience.

Mayor Kip Holden announced the selection in June, inviting us all to “become tourists in our own state and realize once again that whether it’s the food or music, or friendships, that it all adds up to a magic that cannot be found anywhere else in this country.”

Poor Man’s author Rheta Grimsley Johnson has been a newspaper reporter and columnist in the South for more than three decades. In 1991 she became a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Today, her column is syndicated in more than 50 papers nationwide, allowing her to spend time at her farmhouse in Iuka, Miss. and in Henderson, La., where most of the book takes place. Johnson and her husband Don bought first a houseboat and then a house in Henderson and for more than a decade spent months each year—usually duck season—with their new friends in Cajun Country.

While Poor Man’s Provence has been criticized as being episodic, most readers will likely find it a quick, entertaining read because of its short, well-focused chapters and similarity to hearing stories from friends over a cozy dinner. Johnson admits she was intimidated by writing longer after so many years of 600-word columns, so she convinced herself she was just writing long columns. She also wanted to capture the rhythm of Henderson, which she calls “upbeat and fast, like Cajun music,” so she favored a sprightly tone and pace.

Johnson’s friends like Johnelle and Jeanette Latiolais and singer Hélčne Boudreaux are lovingly portrayed throughout. “For the last five or six years, we might as well have been named Latiolais,” Johnson writes. No matter how well you know Cajun Country, Poor Man’s Provence shows us our backyard through the eyes of a knowledgeable outsider. She even comments on negative aspects of life in Henderson by documenting the swamp’s change into something “more urban with each passing day.” Some may think the book a not-quite-anthropological study of Cajun Country, but most will recognize it as a long love letter to a community, to a way of life and to a husband.

Poor Man’s Provence has become a fitting memorial to Don, who died earlier this year. The book is dedicated to him, and it is his figure featured on the striking cover, forever drifting down the river with trusty dog Mabel. readonebook.org