Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Isle of Canes.

Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2004. 583p., hardcover. Illus, maps. $24.95. ISBN 1-59331-175-3.

When one of the leading figures in our profession/avocation publishes a new book, a reviewer’s interest is automatic and immediate. But when the author is justifiably renowned for historical methodology and for compilation and interpretation of resources, and the new volume is a work of fiction, . . . well, one must admit to a bit of trepidation.

There are two points to consider in historical fiction: Accuracy in the history and skill in the fiction. The first is, as they say, a dead cert, as Ms. Mills has been steeping herself in the political, social, economic, and familial history of Louisiana’s Cane River region for some four decades, ever since she began work on her late husband’s ancestry there. In fact, it could be reasonably argued that no present historical writer is more broadly knowledgeable in this subject. And the history of the creoles de couleur of the Isle of Canes largely begins with the family of the slave woman known as Marie Thérèse, or Coincoin, freed in 1778 by the family of Sieur Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, founder of the military post at Natchitoches. Marie Thérèse possessed a remarkable strength of character, which took her through two marriages (the first to another slave, the second to Pierre Metoyer) and fifteen children, who established a dynasty of slave-owning planters. Then came the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, and the end of the now greatly extended family’s fortunes, but not the end of their memories.

So what about the second point, the author’s ability to produce good, readable fiction? I’m pleased to report that while Ms. Mills is not Faulkner, she writes very creditably, at times even masterfully. Her characters not only are believable in themselves, they fit into their proper time and place. Her narrative and descriptive passages flow well and paint the pictures she obviously wants them to. Her dialogue “sounds right”; you can hear it in your mind, being spoken. Perhaps most important, she doesn’t over-write — often a very difficult lesson for a novice novelist to learn.

The plot, which closely follows the actual history of the real Cane River community, doesn’t need much fictionalization to be exciting and affecting. The events with which it deals are complicated, though, as are the intertwined relationships, so the genealogical charts the author (of course) includes are a necessity. There’s sexual tension here, too, just as in real life, but it’s rooted in the condition of servitude, which might make some readers uncomfortable. The author declines to play to the cheap seats, however, and weaves it all into the narrative in skillfully understated fashion. There’s also the tension between French-Spanish-Catholic attitudes toward race and the Anglo-Protestant reaction, which is still a factor in Louisiana’s political and cultural life.

I have recently seen this book compared, a bit grandly, to both Roots and Gone with the Wind, but the Creole-slave experience in Louisiana was quite different than elsewhere in the South, and magnolias are definitely in short supply in the Cane River. Be that as it may, I can quite happily recommend this book both as fiction and as Louisiana history — and not only to genealogists but to anyone in search of a good story.

Published in: on 15 May 2011 at 4:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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