Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In words and photographs, Carl Brasseaux and Philip Gould reintroduce us to the enduring and often fragile beauty of Acadiana. By Anna Purdy Photos by Philip Gould

livingind.2The test of a remarkable coffee table book is simply this: Does it charm those who are most familiar with its subject? Does it make the standard, the seen, the explored suddenly seem fresh and inspiring? Does it make you think, “I never knew that”?

A secondary test is just how many times anyone will bother to give a damn to pick a coffee table book up. Granted, you can go to the clearance section of any large chain bookstore and find a large coffee table book with pictures of the Irish countryside or the art of Chinese puppetry or even the majesty of the Catskills, but how much more vital and relevant is a book dealing with either the land where you grew up and now recall only in memory or the place you now hang your hat? Trust me, both local visitors and those from far away will be visually intrigued enough to lean over the cocktails and canapes to pick up Acadiana — Louisiana’s Historic Cajun Country.

It’s no wonder. The two men behind this book are a scholastic native and an adopted native, Carl A. Brasseaux and Philip Gould, respectively. Gould is someone who fell in love with Acadiana soil more than 35 years ago despite an upbringing in California’s Bay Area; Brasseaux is a familiar name to most people who graduated from UL. He is professor emeritus who was the director of The Center for Louisiana Studies, the Center for Cultural and Eco-Tourism, and the UL Press. In between he found time to publish more than 30 books on the history of the French in North America.

Gould pays visual homage to his chosen homeland well. Every picture is atmospheric, capturing either something you have never livingind.3seen or something you have always tried to describe. It perhaps takes a lens like Gould’s, someone with eyes foreign to the landscape who didn’t grow up playing on the levee or calling someone MawMaw, to wheedle down to the most unique shots.

“When I first moved to Louisiana from California in 1974, the landscape felt strange, very flat especially for someone who grew up around hills and mountains,” Gould explains. “Louisiana had no verticality in its landscape, that is until I discovered huge live oak canopies. D.L. Menard sang it best in ‘En bas un Chene vert’ [Under a Green Oak]. Louisiana will always have a mystique in its landscape. I see it before dawn on foggy mornings. I see it as the last light from the sun casts an orange glow on everything. I love it.”

A book like this wouldn’t work without equal time being paid to the subject both visually and in prose. Brasseaux has long been a protector, defender and storyteller of all things Acadiana. The writing is languid without being slow and informative without being dry, with an intimate feel as if you are walking with him through the landscapes he describes and talks about with so much pride and affection.

“LSU Press originally approached me about doing a project on Acadiana,” says Gould. “After much discussion about concept, we decided on a book that was more about history and sense of place. A good number of books already exist that deal specifically with people and traditional cultures in Acadiana including several of mine. I wanted to do something different. At some point in this deliberation, Carl Brasseaux and I had a long coffee to discuss collaborating. Thankfully he said yes.”

livingind1The Evangeline Maid bread sign whirring in its longstanding billboard makes you remember all the times you have driven down Simcoe Street and smelled the dough baking. Pictures of plantation homes you only visited on school trips or to impress out-of-towners suddenly seem much more regal than before. The very last page, the last shot of Acadiana — Louisiana’s Historic Cajun Country, is a group of two dozen people gathered round outside the home of the legendary Savoy musical family — our non-corny answer to the Osmonds. You can’t show that picture to anyone without them saying, “There is so-and-so.”

Of all the education the book gives you, none may be as important as the pictures on Page 180. It shows both a literal and virtual tiny pool of damage that the oil spill of April 20, 2010, has done. It’s jarring, to say the least. You are happily strolling through memory lane and enjoying the focal points and reading about tidbits you never knew when you see the sludge slumped against the bank like a mean drunk against a gallery’s exterior wall. Not to slight its devastation and importance to the culture, but why, I ask Gould, was this photo important to include? “In doing the book with Carl,” he replies, “I came to realize that the history of Acadiana in terms of theme breaks down nicely by century. The 18th was about settlement, and repatriation of the Acadians. The 19th was about development of the region, improving transportation, surviving the consequences of the Civil War and withstanding poverty. The 20th century was about Americanization of the region, the advent of oil-based wealth and the resurgence of cultural identity. The 21st century thus far is about geographic degradation, be it coastal erosion, oil spills.”

This is an important point to make. In overlooking the environmental devastation in total you miss the big picture. We can’t tell only part of the story of Acadiana, Hollywood-style. The glory of living here is nothing without the blood and guts of what it takes sometimes to stay.

Of that last photo of the Savoys, Gould says, “The final photo of folks playing around a camp fire speaks, I feel, to the ongoing qualities of community here. Elemore Morgan would often talk about the gathering of the tribe. Our connections with each other carry us through tough times, be they man-made or natural.”

Gould and Brasseaux will be on hand from 2-4 p.m. Saturday, April 23, at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Lafayette to sign copies of Acadiana — Louisiana’s Historic Cajun Country.

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