Meely LaBauve

Meely LaBauve

4.3 9
by Ken Wells

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Fifteen-year-old Meely LaBauve is growing up on Catahoula Bayou and living by his wits. His father is an alligator hunter, still unable to cope with the death of his wife eight years earlier. He finds comfort in bottles of hooch and with companionable women and disappears for days at a time. School, for Meely, is a long, dusty walk away in a place where truancy isn't


Fifteen-year-old Meely LaBauve is growing up on Catahoula Bayou and living by his wits. His father is an alligator hunter, still unable to cope with the death of his wife eight years earlier. He finds comfort in bottles of hooch and with companionable women and disappears for days at a time. School, for Meely, is a long, dusty walk away in a place where truancy isn't a top priority. "Up at Catahoula School, we've got all the grades. I'm in ninth when I'm in anything," says Meely. But the law has it out for Meely's dad; and Junior Guidry, nephew of a rogue cop and a bully himself, considers badgering Meely his favorite sport. When the LaBauves find themselves in the law's sights, it takes baseball bats, fire ants, flying alligators, an unidentified body, and a lot of fast thinking to set things right.

Not since Huck Finn rafted down the Mississippi has there been a coming-of-age story like this, told in such an utterly authentic, unlettered American voice. From a charming encounter with first love in the Canciennes' corn patch to an adventurous paddle through wild and timeless places little explored, Ken Wells has cooked up a zesty gumbo of a book--rich, poignant, and often hilarious.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews
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"Daddy's gone off again to hunt gators. He says the police might come lookin' for him 'cause of some problem with his ole truck. He says I can hide or not." From its opening sentences, Ken Wells's Meely LaBauve clearly delineates its world. This is Cajun Louisiana in the early 1960s, where a "liquored up" hog farmer can awaken to "a big sow chewin' on his right leg," and a woman can be married to a corpse in order to avoid giving birth to a bastard.

Emile "Meely" LaBauve's father is not easily found, neither by the police nor by his 15-year-old son. Daddy's absence can be partially explained by longing for his wife, Meely's mother, who died in childbirth several years before; part of his wandering, however, is due to his love of the treacherous swamps around Catahoula Bayou. Whether hunting gators or hiding out, he never ceases to revel in his surroundings and to pass on "peculiar notions" that put him at odds with his time yet seem, in our time, quite ecologically sound.

When he is around, Daddy is quick to express his pride in Meely, his only son: "A boy with hound dog ways and brains is about as good as a boy gits." Meely's appreciation of his father is perhaps best reflected in his own love of the swamp: "It's peaceful out here with the moon shinin' through the trees and grasshoppers sawin' in the reeds and frogs barkin' in the ponds and the slap of our paddles on the water. Now and then a nighthawk will swoop low and go whooshin' by lookin' for supper. Tiny bats flit and chase mosquitoes." The novel's prose sings in such descriptive moments.

Aside from an appreciation of the swamp, and the skills to live off it, Daddy provides little more than a way with gumbo and sauce piquante. Fortunately, Meely is surrounded by friends. There's Joey Hebert, the rich boy whose parents don't approve of the LaBauves, and Chickie Naquin, "who talks a lot and a shirt never got made that would stay tucked in his pants." Though Meely is usually truant, his teacher, Miz Lirette, is always looking out for him—as is Cassie Jackson, a colored girl willing to show him a little bit of "heaven." In a novel full of biting, often hilarious social commentary, Cassie spurs some of Meely's most resonant observations regarding class and race. Describing her, for instance, he says: "Her feet are country feet, hard and dirty and used to walkin' over fields and gravel and such. I've got about the same feet."

While Meely is an energetic and fiercely entertaining narrator, some readers may begin to feel as if they're being dragged along by a precocious youngster who feels compelled to describe everything in picturesque ways (a Cajun glossary is attached). A little too often, adults disburden themselves to Meely, and he, in his naive wisdom, too quickly understands. Just about when the charm is about to wear off, however, the plot sneakily arrives, and earlier sections begin to dovetail.

Conflict arises out of an everyday occurrence, when Meely and Daddy hitchhike to town, hoping to "reclaim" their impounded truck and do some gator hunting. Soon, despite their success in both endeavors, things begin to wheel out of control. Meely's arch-enemy, Junior ("several shrimp short of a gumbo") Guidry, and Junior's uncle, who happens to be the sheriff of Catahoula County, prove that bullying spans generations. The law is after Meely and Daddy "like fleas on a hairy old dog," and their only avenue of escape is the swamp.

One of the finest car chases in recent memory—complete with a gigantic alligator flying through a police car's windshield—ends with the separation of the LaBauves. Meely, slowed by a broken leg, waits in jail, hoping to hear whether Daddy has escaped; instead, he's taken to the morgue and asked to identify a body. Just when things could not get bleaker, the trial begins. Here, the LaBauve way of life, rather than any mere crime, is being judged, and the truth may never be told. Meely must trust his friends to find a way to save him—from jail, reform school, or an orphanage—while watching his enemies attempt to do their worst. How will justice possibly be served?

Ken Wells's Meely LaBauve will undoubtedly be compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and rightly so. Both novels deftly handle serious questions of race, class, and friendship; they both use humor to establish goodwill and maintain momentum through action. For sheer energy and rich, bright language, Huck Finn has few relatives, and Meely LaBauve is a not-too-distant cousin. At some points, his story's focus may seem a little soft and sentimental, his voice a little tireless, yet it would truly take a maudit mon fils de garce or chu de cochon not to enjoy the ride.

Entertainment Weekly
Wells makes a lively fiction debut with this affectionate slice of Louisiana bayou life.. Meely's Cajun-spiced charisma never flags.
Denver Post
Do yourself a favor and become acquainted with Emile LaBauve.. a cross between Huck Finn & Oliver Twist, with south Louisiana accent and a backwoods attitude.. There's a major talent at work here.
New York Times Book Review
[A] short and expert first novel.. not only funny but infused with Wells's deep love of Cajun patois.
Often laugh-out-loud funny [but] Wells has carved a sincere and courageous portrait of a boy becoming a man.
Washington Post Book World
[An] endearing debut. Wells makes a lively fiction debut with this affectionate slice of Louisiana bayou life.. Meely's Cajun-spiced charisma never flags.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his lean, nimble and wise first novel, Wells breathes life into an adolescent boy down on his luck in "the lonesome end of Catahoula Bayou" in Louisiana. The eponymous narrator relates the tale in a restrained, wry voice that is a mixture of Southern vernacular and Cajun phrasing. Meely's father--kindhearted, often drunk and always on the wrong side of the law--hunts gators in the swamp, which is also a great place to hide from the police. He has never recovered from the death of his wife, in childbirth, eight years before. Meely (short for Emile) dreams of his mother and his dead baby sister, but his waking hours are consumed with catching or shooting his own dinner, trying hard to steer clear of a gang of bullies led by Junior Guidry, avoiding school and occasionally hiding from the police in the woods. Wells manages to be graphic, sweet and funny in the scenes where Meely discovers the pleasures of sex with his black friend and neighbor, Cassie. There aren't too many other pleasures for Meely, who is attacked by Junior and his bunch and rescued by Chilly Cox, Cassie's ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, his father is arrested for driving without a license, and his truck is confiscated by the police. Father and son steal the truck back and set out on a gator hunt, where Meely stumbles upon a grisly scene involving Junior, his racist uncle, a policeman and Chilly. Meely's father arrives and turns the tables, quickly rendering himself persona non grata with the authorities. An action-packed stretch that includes a chase, a spectacular accident and Meely's dad's flight into the swamp, culminates in Meely's arrest and trial for assault and battery and attempted murder. There are echoes here of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, in the friendship between a white boy and a black, and in a faked death. But Wells puts his own distinctive spin on this affecting tale, depicting Meely's harsh life without sentimentality, and capturing, as any writer of a coming-of-age story should, the melding of innocence and wisdom. (Feb.) FYI: Wells is a veteran Wall Street Journal reporter who grew up in Bayou Black, La., where he helped with his family's snake-collecting business. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
This first novel is an ALA/YALSA best book of the year and has been critically hailed as an engaging work by a promising artist. Meely (Emile) has been compared with Huck Finn. He is a 15-year-old naïf who lives in Louisiana's Catahoula Bayou with his alcoholic father, runs away from home periodically, is befriended by a giant of a black man, fights redneck bigots, skips school, and is taken in and "civilized" by a kindly teacher. Certainly there are points of comparison between Huck and Meely. But there are important differences. Meely's father poaches alligators, teaches his son the virtues of tolerance and honesty, and is buried before he dies. Unlike Huck, Meely discovers sex. He is arrested and tried, but truth prevails when his friends support him. And while there is humor in Huck's story, it is a savage and cynical kind of humor, the kind that finds humans mostly rotten. Meely fin ds humans mostly good and decent. Ken Wells's affection for his characters and the Cajun way of life is apparent. There is even a brief glossary for readers who don't know what a poule d'eau is. Issues of racism arise. This coming-of-age story will be a certain winner for older teens. KLIATT Codes: S—Recommended for senior high school students. 2000, Random House, 250p., $11.95. Ages 16 to 18. Reviewer: Janet Julian; English Teacher, Retired, Grafton H.S., Grafton, M , November 2001 (Vol. 35, No. 6)
VOYA - Voya Reviews
Fifteen-year-old Emile LaBauve, nicknamed Meely, lives on Catahoula Bayou in the Louisiana swamps. His mother is dead, and his father disappears for days at a time, finding oblivion in alcohol and hunting alligators. When he is not roaming the bayou and living off the land, Meely attends ninth grade, plays baseball, fends off bullies, and tries to stay on the right side of the law as much as possible. The local authorities, however, are looking for Meely's dad for stealing his own truck from the police yard. Meely is pursued by his old nemesis, Junior Guidry, nephew of the cop chasing his father. After encounters with baseball bats, fire ants, a giant alligator, and a corpse, some quick thinking on Meely's part is required to save himself and his father. Justice, of a sort, does prevail, but one of the pleasures of this tale is that the outcome is never certain. Tough, sensitive, and matter-of-fact, this Cajun Huck Finn is a delight, whether he is experiencing his first sexual encounter with Cassie Jackson in a corn field, saving his dad from the granddaddy of all 'gators, or taking on the whole Louisiana legal system. By turns picaresque, poignant, and hilarious, this first novel will remain in the reader's memory as long as 'gators swim in the bayous and fifteen-year-old boys dream about "getting to heaven" with pretty girls. VOYA CODES: 5Q 3P S (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Will appeal with pushing; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2000, Delacorte, Ages 16 to 18, 244p, $19.95. Reviewer: Jamie S. Hansen
Library Journal
Fifteen-year-old Emile "Meely" LaBauve is something of a 20th-century Huck Finn. He lives in a ramshackle house on Louisiana's Catahoula Bayou with his often-absent alligator-hunter father, fishing and exploring and only attending school when he feels like it (his father has asserted that school never did him any good). The novel revolves around a confrontation between Meely and local bully Junior Guidry on a day when he does attend school, a run-in that eventually escalates to property destruction, an attempted murder charge against Meely's father, and the jailing of Meely himself. With the backing of a respected local teacher, Meely fights to avoid the equally unpalatable options of prison and the orphanage. Wall Street Journal writer Wells has cooked up a zestful gumbo of a first novel, a rich and raucous coming-of-age tale redolent with the flavor of the bayou. Recommended for all public libraries.--Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
YA-"Us LaBauves need to be out under the sky, where the rabbits and the coons and the gators are. We just need to go fishin' sometimes." This has been a basic problem for both 15-year-old Meely and his father. The teen's mother died in childbirth seven years previously and since then his drink-prone father has been even more absent, sometimes hunting gators, sometimes womanizing, and sometimes in jail. Though unreliable by most standards, he has taught his son kindness and tolerance beyond that of most inhabitants of Louisiana bayou country in the early `60s. However, Mr. LaBauve's trust of Meely and the boy's good nature get them into a disastrous predicament involving seeming disregard for the law, a wild truck chase, and a gator. The resolution is satisfying, and Meely and the other characters are fully realized and original. This evocative coming-of-age story is redolent of Cajun culture; from the food, the fishing, the hunting, and the boating to the colorful language. Much like Huck Finn, this picaresque journey through another time and place is warm and funny and thought-provoking as Meely discovers the opposite sex and encounters racism and bullying with a natural aplomb.-Susan H. Woodcock, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Ken Wells was raised in a snake-hunting family who lived along the banks of the Bayou Black in Louisiana -- he is now an editor at The Wall Street Journal -- and his short and expert first novel explores racial divides back home in Cajun country... It's written in a casual, Southern front-porch storytelling style; in other words, it's not only funny but infused with Wells's deep love of Cajun patois.
The New York Times Book Review
Anne Rivers Siddons
I don't know when a voice in fiction has connected so solidly with me. It's as particular as a thumbprint and as unmistakable as someone's laugh. This tough and wonderful child is going to stay with me.
—Anne Rivers Siddons, author of Low Country
Erik Larson
Ken Wells' feet may be on Wall Street, but his heart, thankfully, is still in thebayou. Emile "Meely" LaBauve is a Cajun Huck Finn, full of fight and honor, who battles his way toward adulthood past 'gators of all kinds, scaled and otherwise. I found myself torn between laughter and tears. This is a terrific and moving read, the perfect elixir for a world.
—Erik Larson, author of Isaac's Storm
Frances Fitzgerald
A first-person novel, particularly one of a child in an exotic (to most readers) setting, is notoriously hardto pull off, but this one seems real and effortless.... Completely charming. I couldn't, as they say, put it down.
—Frances Fitzgerald, author of Fire in the Lake and Cities on the Hill
Tony Horwitz
MeelyLaBauve does for the Cajun bayou what Cold Mountain did for Southern Appalachia, bringing to life a wonderfully peculiar notch of the deep, deep South.
—Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic
Though the coming of age novel has been done many times over, it's never been done quite this way – and seldom as well...."[t]hough the book is often laugh-out-loud funny, Meely LaBauve is no less poignant because of its honed sense of humor. Wells...has carved a sincere and courageous portrait of a boy becoming a man.
Publishers Weekly
[A] lean, nimble and wise first novel.. Wells breathes life into an adolescent boy down on his luck in 'the lonesome end of Catahoula Bayou' in Louisiana.... There are echoes here of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer...but Wells puts his own distinctive spin on this affecting tale, depicting Meely's harsh life wihthout sentimentality, and capturing, as any writer of a coming-of-age story should, the melding of innocence and wisdom.
From the Publisher
"Do yourself a favor and become acquainted with Emile LaBauve... a cross between Huck Finn & Oliver Twist, with south Louisiana accent and a backwoods attitude... There's a major talent at work here."
The Denver Post

"[A] short and expert first novel... not only funny but infused with Wells's deep love of Cajun patois."
The New York Times Book Review

"[An] endearing debut"
The Washington Post Book World

"Wells makes a lively fiction debut with this affectionate slice of Louisiana bayou life... Meely's Cajun-spiced charisma never flags."
Entertainment Weekly

"[Meely is] a cross between Huck Finn and Oliver Twist, which a South Louisiana accent and a backwoods attitude....There's a major talent at work here."

"Often laugh-out-loud funny [but] Wells has carved a sincere and courageous portrait of a boy becoming a man."

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Daddy’s gone off again to hunt gators. He says the police might come lookin’ for him ’cause of some problem with his ole truck. He says I can hide or not.

I’m not gonna hide this time. If they come they’ll ax me questions. But I won’t know where Daddy is any more than they do. I’ll say back in the swamp somewhere, which is close as I can come. They’ll go lookin’ but they won’t find him, not unless he wants to be found. Or unless he gits drunk, which is always possible with Daddy, and he comes roarin’ into town raisin’ hell. He might run right into the police station and bust up a couple of ’em till they throw him in jail.

It sometimes happens that way. That’s Daddy for you.

We live way down on the lonesome end of Catahoula Bayou. Our house is ugly and fallin’ apart here and there. Daddy won’t fix it. He says he’s give up on houses and when this one falls down he won’t have another. He’ll go live in the woods.

He don’t say what I’m s’posed to do.

When Momma was alive, she kept it up pretty well. She mopped and swept and got after Daddy to carpenter and paint and mow. He listened most times, as I remember.

But since Momma’s gone, Daddy don’t listen to nobody. He runs off into the swamps huntin’ alligators and just stays. Otherwise, he’s pretty much in town, drinkin’ in a saloon.

I myself have never tried to tell Daddy anything, though I might one day.

My name is Emile LaBauve, Emile comin’ from my great-grandpa Toups on Momma’s side. I never liked my name and people that know me, ’cept the teachers and Father Giroir, the bayou priest, call me Meely. I’m fifteen, small for my age everybody says. I tend to stay away from school and such. Every so often, the police come lookin’ for me instead of Daddy. And I run off, too, and hide in the woods. It’s amazin’ how poor the police are at findin’ people.

I hope I never git lost and need the police to find me for real.

The police come ’cause I live pretty well by myself and I don’t go to school unless I want to. Daddy, him, he won’t make me. He says I’m pretty near growed and got his hound dog ways and Momma’s brains. He says a hound dog is good at scroungin’ and will never starve and somebody with brains can always figger out what to do.

He says I don’t need much else, and anyway school never did him much good.

I don’t mind school sometimes, just like sometimes I don’t mind breakfast.

I wouldn’t mind it, actually, if Daddy bought groceries now and then.

But I’m doin’ okay. I’ve planted my own garden and there’s fish and frogs and crawfish in the bayou and swamps, and I take my twenty-two out and shoot me some birds and rabbits and such.

Blackbirds is good, though people don’t think so.

Heck, I roasted a mockin’ bird in the oven once.

It cooked up itty-bitty but was all right. Sweet it was.

Junior Guidry says only a moron would shoot a mockin’ bird ’cause the law is against such things and they could put you in the jailhouse. I don’t say nothin’ to Junior Guidry, usually, as I know he’s plannin’ to bust me up good one day. He’s tried a few times already. Sometimes I look at him the way Daddy says I should, with the Evil Eye.

Junior’s a big ole s.o.b. and mean as a gut-shot gator. He’s been in eighth grade a long time. I keep hopin’ he’ll just quit school but he won’t ’cause his momma makes him go.

Junior don’t like the Evil Eye.

I don’t know what the Evil Eye is all about. It comes from Daddy’s side of the family. His ole Tante Eve knew all about it and put the gris-gris on lots of people and they took it serious. Daddy taught me how to look just like Tante Eve looked but it don’t mean nothin’ to me. But I guess I look like one scary booger when I do it.

That’s what Daddy says.

Don’t matter what it means, Meely, just what it looks like.

Junior thinks I’m crazy, which is prob’ly a good thing for Junior to think.

I got one real friend far as I know, Joey Hebert. He lives up the bayou in a big ole house kept nice. It’s white and once, Joey says, slaves tended it. The yard’s bigger than the grounds at school and the oak trees are so big and old that the slaves tended them, too. Mr. Hebert mows the grass hisself with a big tractor, though the Heberts, Joey says, got all the money in the world. His daddy could hire twenty people to cut the grass but he don’t want to, Joey says. He just likes sittin’ up on that tractor mowin’ away. He don’t work much anymore, otherwise.

The Heberts got all that cane land and people tend it and give Mr. Hebert the money. They got two Cadillacs, one black for Mr. Hebert and one white for Miz Hebert, and a pretty new red 1961 Ford pickup truck and a colored maid who dresses like a nurse, and a colored cook who does too.

Mr. Hebert mows the grass and drives his truck up and down the bayou lookin’ at his cane land. He drives the Cadillac to church on Sundays.

He don’t like me much, though Joey does.

Joey says I’m smart, which I think I am, and he says I’m lucky ’cause I git to do just what I want when I want to do it. He says he would love to skip school ’cept he cain’t. He says I’m lucky I don’t have a momma ’cause he has a momma and she gits on him every day about this or that. He says Daddy is a character and he wishes his daddy was. He says Daddy’s right when he says a boy with hound dog ways and brains is about as good as a boy gits.

I agree with most of that and, anyway, Joey’s the only person I know who’s ever agreed with anything Daddy’s said.

Me and Joey do things sometimes when he can slip away. We go swimmin’ down at Poule D’eau Curve and I take him out in the woods and show him things I know about that Daddy’s showed me. We catch garter snakes and frogs and we tease cottonmouths with willow switches, which ain’t dangerous provided you use a pretty long switch. We track deer. We’ve never got close enough to shoot one, though we’ve seen the backsides of a few.

Once we shot a rabbit with my twenty-two. I skinned it and dabbed it with Tabasco sauce, which I carry in my huntin’ vest, and we roasted it on a spit out in the woods over a fire I made. It was tender and good. We shot it out of huntin’ season and Joey was afraid we’d git caught. But I laughed.

I told him I knew all about the police and game wardens, too. If they come to chase us, I knew just where to run.

Anyway, what do the police care if I eat me a rabbit?

Daddy says the woods and what’s in ’em are free to a hungry man.

Joey says he agrees with this, too.

Joey is popular down at the school with the teachers and girls and such. He says he’s gotta go to a college called Tulane—he cain’t git out of it. His momma would have a fit ’cause her own daddy went there. He says he’s gotta be a lawyer or else his Daddy will leave him out of his will. He says there’s lots of money in that will, Meely, so you wouldn’t wanna be left out of it.

After we ate that rabbit in the woods, he said he was gonna invite me to supper. But he ain’t yet.

I’m interested in that big ole house. I think about slaves and ghosts and such.

And supper, sometimes.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Ken Wells grew up on the banks of Bayou Black, deep in South Louisiana's Cajun belt. He got his first newspaper job as a nineteen-year-old college dropout, covering car wrecks and gator sightings for  The Courier, a Houma, Louisiana, weekly, while still helping out in his family's snake-collecting enterprise. He is now a senior writer and features editor for The Wall Street Journal's Page One staff. He lives with his family on the outskirts of Manhattan. Meely LaBauve is his first novel.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Meely LaBauve 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book. Might have something to do with being from Louisiana.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The structure of the writing makes for very difficult reading...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Started reading and could not put it down It is now midnight and i will pay for it tomorrow. It was worth it!
Peyton Schilling More than 1 year ago
Awesome book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I absolutely fell in love with this book and most importantly Meely, the main character. I found myself reading this book anytime I got a free moment and it was very hard to put it down. This is a great coming-of-age book about a 15 year old boy and the hard life he has. As the Denver Post states, it will surely remind you of Huck Finn.
Guest More than 1 year ago
All of us down here in South Louisiana either knew Meeley or we are him. In either case our view of heaven will never be the same!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Within the first two paragraphs I knew I was in for a delightful experience. Meely is a real 'swamp rat', and I often felt as if I was wandering through the Catahoula Bayou right beside him. An easy, pleasurable read that anyone who enjoys geographically realistic writing should not miss. First novels are often some of the best reading available, and Ken Wells has proven this with real finesse. Thanks to him for a most enjoyable book!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a bookseller, it is always a delight to find a new author to recommend. I recommend Ken Wells highly - Meely is a bit of a rascal, and utterly charming! I understand the comparison to Huck Finn, but I think Meely will appeal much more to today's teens, as well as adults. Meely is an authentic and convincing new voice in literature. Be careful! He will sneak up and touch your heart before you know what has happened. I know that he will live in my heart for a long, long time. Read this book! You won't be disappointed, you have promise as a bookseller!