A Book Review: Cajun Family Identity
When the sailing ships came over from Europe to the new world, the men, women, and children surviving the rocky, leaky, and sickly voyage knew long before they stepped ashore that their lives, their very identity, had been irrevocably changed forever.
Today, nearly four hundred years later, descendants of immigrants still ruminate about who they are, not only collectively as a nation but also as individuals living within the boundaries of this foreign land we call the United States. For the individuals seeking a rootedness, sometimes they find it in the soil, sometimes in their soul, and sometimes not at all.
In the People of the Good God by Hardy Jones, his search for identity led him to a region known in Louisiana as Acadiana where Cajuns have long fought the good fight to keep their identity intact — today from assimilation and in the past from compulsory laws and rules that tried to erase any vestige of the Acadians evicted from Nova Scotia. The story, as told by Longfellow’s Evangeline, is an old tale of death and rebirth about those French-speaking people who settled along the bayous, near the marshes, and onto the prairies of a part of Louisiana bounded in the east by the Atchafalaya Basin and the west by the Sabine River.
Hardy Jones’ story, however, is a modern tale reaching back to the 19th century and stretching forward into the 21st. His story is more than a history, more than a genealogy, and certainly more than a snap shot of a living, breathing people he calls his family; his story is really a discovery of a way of life that was bred into him long before he even considered the idea of being Cajun, for in the end, no one can take away what God has given.
Before the first words of the first sentences that begin Hardy’s story are even read, the reader must take note of the cover of this small yet culturally rich narrative. The image that bleeds from the back to the front is that of the “Arrival of the Acadians” by Robert Dafford. Here the Acadians are gathered under a moss draped Louisiana oak.
After reading the People of the Good God, the reader will return to inspect more closely Dafford’s portrait where the faces will then take on a familiarity touched with images of respect, dignity and kinship that overlay the pain that indelibly comes with a will to survive. Like an old tree that has weathered many storms, their descendants, still rooted to the land, serve as a testament to those who came before them by keeping the old ways always new.
In the beginning, like Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Hardy Jones proclaims his birth: “On December 20th, 1972, I was born to a Texas Dad and a Cajun Mom.” However, Hardy was not born in Louisiana. He was conceived, as the family story goes, at a motel in Franklin, Louisiana, but he was born in Pensacola, Florida where he lived until 1986. Until that time, short summer visits to Louisiana grafted few impressions into his memory about the idea of Cajunness. That changed when his Dad moved the family to Louisiana in 1986 where Hardy was enrolled in South Beauregard School located north of Lake Charles.
What is a Cajun? Tourists and passersby expect a ready-made answer in ten words or less; however, as Hardy learned, Cajuns cannot be pigeonholed into a dictionary term with a picture beside it. Truth-be-told, what he learned early on was that “Cajun food is our culture’s pride and joy.” Today, recipes for staples like gumbo, boudin, and coubillion are readily available in print yet are seldom duplicated in a non-Cajun’s kitchen.
Fortunately for Hardy, his Mom was Cajun, so his introduction to the culture came from her kitchen in the form of seafood gumbo, chicken and sausage gumbo, and catfish coubillion. As he grew older, he discovered the best gumbo is not found in a restaurant. It is found at home in a Cajun’s kitchen where the aroma of day old gumbo warms a shotgun house with the idea that being home means slowing down, pulling up a chair at the kitchen table, and spooning a brown, soupy looking substance that tastes like you want to forget the dang spoon and pick up the bowl and slurp it all down.
What makes People of the Good God exceptionally engaging is that Hardy Jones is not telling the reader who or what Cajuns are; he is showing us by taking us into the homes of family and friends to visit with Grandpere and Grandmere where they can turn a question like How y’all doing? into a whole afternoon of stories about life in and around their home while they keep the cups of dark, black, rich coffee filled to the brim.
If Cajun food is the pride of their culture, music follows behind, nipping at the heals of anyone who will listen to a two step rhythm set by an accordion, a violin, and a wailing, plaintive cry of a voice calling out ya-eeee, les bon temps roulette — let the good times roll. And Hardy’s Uncle Dub could play with the best of any Cajun band, for you see, “Uncle Dub taught himself to play the accordion, guitar, steel guitar, and drums. In the 1950s and 1960s he had a Cajun band that played in bars and dancehalls around Lake Charles.” Uncle Dub was before Hardy’s time, but his Mom keeps the memories alive. “Uncle Dub died the week before he was scheduled to play at the Grand Old Opry. A drunk driver hit him head on at an intersection.” What makes Uncle Dub’s memories especially bittersweet is what he left behind, namely, his twin sister, Hardy’s mother.
The language of the Cajuns permeates all of Hardy’s stories. Cajun words have songs unto themselves, for example, Le Courir de Mardi Gras — the running of the Mardi Gras, is not a New Orleans’ style Mardi Gras. Instead of bead throwing and parades, the Capitane leads a crew of horse riders all over the countryside to chase chickens, beg for rice, and make good folk revelry at the end of the day with Cajun music and a gigantic pot of chicken and sausage gumbo.
Unfortunately, dear reader, this book review is woefully lacking, but Hardy Jones’ People of the Good God is not. Exploring his book further, you will learn that Acadiana is Catholic country, doctors are traiteurs, and crawfish grow in rice fields as well as in the front yard. And no matter where those mudbugs come from, they make for a most excellent etouffee. Oil and gas companies make their home here right alongside sugarcane stalks and shrimp boats. So if you want to embrace the depth and breadth of whom Cajuns are, where they live, and how they live their lives, read his personal narrative and learn how the old is always kept knew. Joie de vivre!