Postmark Bayou Chene: A Novel, by Gwen Roland. Louisiana State University Press.
Bayou Chene (the waterway) bends westward from the southern Atchafalaya River in the direction of New Iberia and St. Martinville, its original winding path cut into a network of channels and cross-channels by the Army Corps of Engineers. Bayou Chene (the village) once sat on this waterway, home to a community of fishermen, moss pickers, trappers, and farmers, now one of those lost villages that lives only in the memories of a diminishing few and in the documents of historians and genealogists.
Gwen Roland’s family roots include Bayou Chene, and in her novel she draws on the stories of her ancestors and her own experiences to create a tale of life in 1907 Louisiana. Postmark Bayou Chene is a sweet story of resilient survivors who love, quarrel, and above all, hang on, in a tiny village that even in 1907 was a backwater.
There is a type of historical novel I think of as a “folkways novel,” which devotes as much attention to the depiction of a vanished or vanishing way of life as it does to plot or characters. P.D.R. Lindsay’s admirable Tizzie from 2014 is such a novel, and Postmark Bayou Chene participates in this spirit as well. Language, cooking, modes of travel, ways of making a living, all are delineated lovingly. Part of the appreciation of this novel comes from its careful and accurate portrayal of the way its characters lived their lives. Louisianans will enjoy reading about practices that they may have heard about from their grandparents, and non-Louisianans will enjoy reading a more authentic version of south Louisiana life than what they are accustomed to seeing in movies or television.
The novel’s main character is Loyce Snellgrove, a young woman who grew up on the bayou, suffered blindness as the result of a childhood infection, gone off for an education at the Louisiana School for the Deaf and Blind, and returned to take up the quiet life with her father, Adam Snellgrove. Two arrivals interrupt that quiet and set the plot into motion: an empty skiff, drifting down the bayou with a nearly drowned dog tied to it, and a letter that had been sitting in a dead-letter office since the Civil War. People and things drift into Bayou Chene throughout the novel, bringing conflict, opportunity, and occasionally danger. Loyce’s blindness is described effectively: “I could busy my mind and figure out what was going on around me just by the sounds,” Loyce says at one point, reminiscing about her years away at school. “A boat’s whistle on the river always meant something, and it wasn’t long before I could tell whether they were coming in to the dock or leaving or passing another boat. I could tell by the milkman’s step on the walk whether his feet were hurting that morning. The clang of the pans told me what we were having for breakfast just as if I’d asked the cook!”
Postmark Bayou Chene is character-driven, with a point of view that floats from character to character as the story necessitates. The voice of Loyce is the most consistent and engaging; her vulnerability leads her to snappishness from time to time, as her efforts to guard herself from overdependence make her hold others at arm’s length despite her desires otherwise. It’s a gentle book, with a cast of likeable characters held together by a sense of common direction even though they have differences. The author’s love for the landscape and the characters who inhabit it is evident, a laudable quality except for the fact that it gives the novel difficulty coming up with a credible antagonist, and the one who does arise has to be more or less imported to the plot. But despite that plot drawback, Postmark is a rewarding, richly peopled novel that immerses us in turn-of-the century swamp Louisiana and makes us wish we were there to taste Adam Snellgrove’s unforgettable catfish.
Reviewed by Steve Wiegenstein
Steve Wiegenstein is the author of SLANT OF LIGHT and THIS OLD WORLD. He is a professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies at Columbia College.