THE UNNATURAL HISTORY OF CYPRESS PARISH
Set in southern Louisiana in the weeks preceding the great flood of 1927, this novel depicts a place and way of life about to be forever changed. On the verge of manhood and a stone’s throw of the rising Mississippi River, Louis Proby is pulled between his love of the natural world and the glittering temptations of New Orleans, between the beautiful Nanette Lançon and a father who no longer seems larger-than-life, between the simplicity of childhood and the complicated decisions of adulthood.
Louis comes of age at a time when the country is coming of age. In Louisiana, it’s a time when the powerful prove themselves willing to sacrifice the poor to protect their position. As the people of Cypress Parish go about their daily lives, bankers in New Orleans are plotting to alter those lives irrevocably. Like so many calamities, the one that befalls Cypress Parish has both natural and human causes.
Based on historical events and narrated on the eve of another disaster, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish tells the story of a young man growing up in a time and place not quite like any other. And in doing so it reveals the complexity of our own relationship to the past. This a beautifully turned novel of love and natural history, married to the shadowy politics of Louisiana, a novel about what manhood means now and what it meant in the south in the 1920s.
$23.95 | Fiction Hardcover | 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 | 240 pages
Though my delivery was stiff—I wasn’t used to talking with grown men and certainly unaccustomed to offering humor—my father and Rabbit appeared to find my comment funny enough. Both laughed hard, Rabbit even rubbing the side of his sizable belly. But Rabbit stopped his laugh in the middle of his throat, dampening it to a low growl and then cutting it off altogether. He moved closer, almost into us, and whispered to my father that one of the men, the one with the blue bandana hanging from his jumper, had brought a gun on the job and bragged that he was going to use it on the superintendent.
My father smiled and nodded, as though he had just been told another connubial joke. Then he cracked all the knuckles of his right hand, working one finger at a time, base to tip, and started over toward the men.
I moved to follow, but Rabbit pressed a large palm flat against my chest. The dampness of his hand soaked into my shirt, its warmth spreading like a stain. I could smell his sweat, more bitter than sharp, like the rind rather than the flesh of a lemon.
Rabbit shook his head, almost with just his eyes. “Your father knows what to do. Let him handle his business.”
The large man let me edge a few inches to one side so that I could see around him, but he stayed close, his hand ready to stall me again. And then he asked me question after question about my mother, sisters, and my little brother, whose name was Powell but whom everyone called Pal.
I murmured the answers with all the politeness I could muster but without much concentration. “Just fine,” I said. “Yes, Luta’s still crazy for basketball, playing it or watching it, but especially playing it.” “Emily sure is as pretty as ever and, yes, sweet as sugar too.” “No, he still won’t dress his own game, says his stomach won’t take it.”
As I muttered my responses in turn with Rabbit’s questions, I watched and listened to my father make his way down the line of working men. He paused before each, commenting on the fine work of one, the marriage of another’s daughter, the well being of the next man’s wife or fiancée.
“If you ask me,” said Rabbit, “A boy’s old enough to hunt, a boy’s old enough to skin.”
I had to look directly at him then and laugh, because that was the same thought I’d been keeping to myself for a good year or more. “I’ll agree with you there,” I said.
When I put my eyes back to my father, he was standing right in front of the man with the blue bandana, just one step up the ditch grade, making a remark about the shovel the man was using, asking to see it, looking with concern at its handle as he took it from the man’s hands.
Then, cottonmouth fast, he swung full force and hit the man across the side of his face with the flat of the shovel. The man did not raise a hand nor did he duck or reel back. He dropped straight, face down in the ditch water. A spotted salamander skittered away as my father reached under the injured man’s jumper, swiftly removed the revolver as though he’d know just where it was hidden, and tucked it under his own shirt. None of the men reacted.
Rabbit stopped interviewing me then and together we watched my father continue down the line, spending a particularly long time congratulating on older man on the acceptance of his grandson into a Negro divinity school up north.
Before he walked over to pull the fallen man’s face from the brackish water, Rabbit smiled at me and said, “I told you he knew what to do.”
My father did not so much as pay the would-be assailant another look on his way back to the cart. As we followed the tracks home through stands of hardwood and then pine, all he said was, “Don’t mention any of that business to your mother.”