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…  See more details below


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.

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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.

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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.

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Meely LaBauve 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous 6 months ago
Loved this book. Might have something to do with being from Louisiana.
Anonymous 10 months 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!