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The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish

The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish

4.0 4
by Elise Blackwell

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Set in southern Louisiana in the weeks preceding the great flood of 1927, this novel depicts a place and way of life about to be forever changed. On the verge of manhood and a stone’s throw of the rising Mississippi River, Louis Proby is pulled between his love of the natural world and the glittering temptations of New Orleans, between the beautiful Nanette


Set in southern Louisiana in the weeks preceding the great flood of 1927, this novel depicts a place and way of life about to be forever changed. On the verge of manhood and a stone’s throw of the rising Mississippi River, Louis Proby is pulled between his love of the natural world and the glittering temptations of New Orleans, between the beautiful Nanette Lançon and a father who no longer seems larger-than-life, between the simplicity of childhood and the complicated decisions of adulthood.

Louis comes of age at a time when the country is coming of age. In Louisiana, it’s a time when the powerful prove themselves willing to sacrifice the poor to protect their position. As the people of Cypress Parish go about their daily lives, bankers in New Orleans are plotting to alter those lives irrevocably. Like so many calamities, the one that befalls Cypress Parish has both natural and human causes.

Based on historical events and narrated on the eve of another disaster, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish tells the story of a young man growing up in a time and place not quite like any other.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“In Blackwell’s lyrical second novel…Louis Proby waits in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina bears down. He reflects on his childhood in Cypress Parish, LA, when a disastrous flood in 1927 changed the fortunes of so many.… Blackwell weaves human history with the natural history and, with an assortment of vibrant characters, tells a compelling story of a river that still resists the best math and science humanity can construct. Highly recommended.”—Library Journal, STARRED

“…Elise Blackwell’s second novel looks back to the flood of 1927 (a real event) in the (fictional) Cypress Parish, childhood home of Louis Proby…. From the vantage point of old age, Louis looks back on the choices he made in ‘the strange and wet spring I turned 17 and crossed the marshy border that separates all that is good and bad of boyhood from all that is good and bad of manhood.’”
—The New York Times

“… an intimate, resonant history of the era…. Blackwell…elegantly chronicles Louis’s conflict between protecting his first love and his obligations to his father.….”—Publishers Weekly

“Blackwell’s grasp of the events surrounding the great flood is acute and grounded in a moral logic that reveals how politics can destroy a city. . . . Blackwell’s delicate balancing of history and fiction… has become, in The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, even more subtle and elegant." —The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)

“….qualities reminiscent of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. …[L]ike those novels, Blackwell's is a tightly written story that forces the reader to sit down and take notice. Like Capote and Conrad, Blackwell weaves more than a lifetime of insights into this book…. The richness of Blackwell’s novel is that it is many stories in one… coming-of-age …the underside of politics…[and] a love story.… [with] descriptions…beautifully written and erotic— but without being seamy or tawdry. The South, in a lot of popular culture, is too often portrayed as a region of buffoons and psychopaths. Elise Blackwell refuses to accept that demeaning view…. Blackwell has produced a literary gem that portrays the South with all its layered complexity.” –The Herald-Sun (Durahm, NC)

“The present haunts the past in this beautiful and timely book. Blackwell burns time, love, and loss down into a bed of discrete mnemonic coals. The voice is so true that it reads like the purest, most authentic memoir. This novel is tough, and sad, and lovely.”— Brad Watson, author of Heaven of Mercury and Last Days of the Dog Men

“… Elise Blackwell once again demonstrates her marvelous talent for braiding together public and private history. The result is a beautifully written and absorbing novel. — Margot Livesey, author of The Missing World, Criminals and other novels

“Elise Blackwell’s novels are sublime. Rendered with precision and humanity,
The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish is, like Hunger, about memory, history, and what guilt can do to a person over the course of a life. It is also a tour de force. I cannot recommend it highly enough.” —Anthony Doerr, author of The Shell Collector and About Grace

“’Who I am remains intimately gnarled with where I came from,’ says narrator Louis Proby…. ‘And where I came from is the place making the news, the place in the line of fire, soon to be the eye of the storm.’ … The novel comes alive…once the river’s innate turbulence becomes a tangible threat, and Louis…is privy to backroom negotiations to sacrifice Cypress Parish by dynamiting its levee in order to save New Orleans. The cruel pragmatism of the men who dicker over the future of Louis’ home foreshadows the real-life callousness and shortsightedness we now know led to the man-made disaster of Hurricane Katrina. ….[I]n scenes…of the intentional destruction of a levee, or the description of the pilots who flew above the town in the days before the dynamiting…we see the venal hubris of men who have tried to control nature, and in their failure, destroyed an entire way of life.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Publishers Weekly

On the eve of Hurricane Katrina, the now elderly narrator, Louis Proby, remembers the great floods of his small Louisiana town in 1927, recounting an intimate, resonant history of the era of Huey Long and Marcus Garvey. Louis, 17, is the son of Cypress Parish's superintendent, William Proby, who ascended the local logging ranks and regularly has to compromise himself in deals with the hardscrabble laborers and casinos in order to keep order in the town, as Louis painfully witnesses. Louis is a dutiful son, smitten with a pretty girl from a French family, Nanette Lançon, and intent on becoming a doctor, as per his father's plans. Offered the job of driving lumber company official Charles Segrist to and from New Orleans, Louis is granted entrée into the grand seedy clubs of the Crescent City and learns a little not just about prostitutes, alcohol and back deals with Isleños bootleggers Olivier Menard and Orlando Funes, but also of plans to blow up a Cypress Parish levee and thus flood the area in order to save New Orleans. Blackwell (Hunger) elegantly chronicles Louis's conflict between protecting his first love and his obligations to his father, though Louis finds he betrays both. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In Blackwell's lyrical second novel (after Hunger), Louis Proby waits in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina bears down. He reflects on his childhood in Cypress Parish, LA, when a disastrous flood in 1927 changed the fortunes of so many. Young Louis and three siblings live a more privileged life than most. Their father, strict and taciturn, is a logging-camp superintendent whose word is law in their backwater town. Bookish Louis writes detailed descriptions of the natural history of the area "with occasional teenaged philosophy clumsily knitted in." The Mississippi River constantly exerts an ominous presence as steady rains point toward disaster. When the authorities decide to dynamite the levees to save New Orleans, the area is evacuated, and, sadly, Cypress Parish is sacrificed to the floodwaters. However, Louis knows the truth of just how his father allowed the parish to go under needlessly. Blackwell weaves human history with the natural history and, with an assortment of vibrant characters, tells a compelling story of a river that still resists the best math and science humanity can construct. Highly recommended for all public libraries.
—Donna Bettencourt

Product Details

Unbridled Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
11171 Unbridled
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2007 Elise Blackwell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-932961-31-7

Chapter One

The strange and wet spring I turned seventeen and crossed the marshy border that separates all that is good and bad of boyhood from all that is good and bad of manhood, three men tried to kill my father. Then water and the actions of men washed away almost everything I knew.

The first incident rose like steam from nowhere but the damp ground and was over before it had time to worry anyone other than me.

My father, William Proby, had worked in logging since he was thirteen years old, when the lumber company showed up with a dollar for any young man willing to lay track and fell the backwoods he'd crawled out of. My father had started as a water boy and then, through brains and sweat labor and some said cunning if not treachery, moved into skilled positions. He'd thought and muscled his way from locomotive engineer to loader operator to drum puller to skidder foreman to camp foreman. Then, a scant few years before the spring in which three men sought to halt his rise, he was made superintendent of the town of Cypress.

Though he could not have known it would be Cypress-and indeed Cypress had not existed on the map or anywhere else before the lumber company thought it up and made it a place-becoming company-town superintendent had been my father's plan since he was that thirteen-year-old water boy.

There weremen in Cypress with more education, men who'd matriculated in social strata that my father would never touch: the town's doctor and dentist, of course, and even Gaspar Anderson, the painter who roomed parts of the year with the Washburn women. But no one in town ranked higher than my father. No one was over him, not since he had taken care of the constable. Charles Segrist didn't really count. Everyone knew that, as company representative, Mr. Segrist limited his Cypress rounds to a few days a week, preferring to spend most of his time in New Orleans, where, as he put it, his true interests lay.

One Saturday early in the new year, I was riding the rails with my father on a gas-motored cart adapted to stay on the tracks by the addition of flanges to the inner walls of its four wheels. From a distance, my father was still larger than life to me, but, sitting side by side, I could remember that I had already grown taller than his six feet even, though he could still take me in boxing, arm wrestling, and nearly every other physical feat save running. Aging had taken more than a little of his speed.

Anyone could see, though, even when he was seated, that my father was strong. He was a man to decide things quickly, a man to reckon with. His feet were always right under him, his body forward, his head at the very top of his neck, ready to strike.

We were riding the rails, checking in on the Negro crews. The last stop of the morning was Rabbit's crew, which was digging ditch for a skidder line on a new plot.

Rabbit and my father had become something akin to friends during our first week in Cypress. The town constable, a blunt-looking man known to be slow to move but quick to temper, had quarreled with Rabbit over the constable's efforts to arrest Rabbit's brother Ernest for selling gin in the tunk he ran down in the Negro quarter.

My father ordinarily took a dim view of bootlegging, a view that only darkened after my Uncle Walter was killed by a man who ran liquor from the coast up to New Orleans. But his attitude was somewhat softer concerning liquor and black men, who, he said, could more understandably take to drink because they had nothing to work toward, no way to rise without leaving their home, not even through brains and sweat labor.

Rabbit and the constable-some said just Rabbit and others said only the constable-had exchanged shots in the street, right down from the Washburn women's boardinghouse. Rabbit had run into the woods south of town, where the constable had been afraid to chase him, he'd said, given that the woods ran right alongside the Negro quarter. "You know how people stick beside their own kind," he'd said by way of explanation.

Upon hearing the constable's version, my father had gone in after Rabbit himself. The two had come back to town in under an hour, Rabbit agreeing to be locked in the jail. Within a few days, though, my father had convinced the lumber company that Cypress had little or more likely no need for a superintendent and a constable both. And once the constable was out of the picture and soon enough out of town, my father released Rabbit and placed him on the crew he now oversaw. My father told my mother that he didn't know if he was madder at the constable for being scared of the woods or for escalating a situation that should have been kept small. "Man's an idiot," he'd said and shook his head while he was smiling.

I never found out what my father had said to Rabbit in the woods. I'd wanted to ask at the time and for a long while afterward, but I understood that my father was the sort of man who told you what he wanted you to know and didn't appreciate any questions that went beyond that.

We maneuvered the gasoline-powered cart in fairly close to where the crew was digging before climbing down and continuing on foot. The morning chill had evaporated, leaving a day that was unusually hot for late winter. Shade was better than no shade, but even in the curved world made by the wood's canopy, the air felt like warm, damp wool. It was loud with insects low to the ground and with the birds overhead.

Rabbit approached with steps that took him as much side to side as forward due to his short, bowed legs. But he was a big man on top of them, with a round chest and an unusually large head. I didn't know why he was called Rabbit, but I knew it had nothing to do with how he looked or moved.

"One of the men was just carrying on," Rabbit started up, "in some detail about how when he married his wife, she could pee through the eye of a needle but now she can't even hit a wash bucket without splashing."

While my father laughed, Rabbit shot me an eye. "But perhaps I shouldn't be repeating such tales in front of your boy," he said. "A fine boy, too, taller every day from the looks of things. What you going to make out of him, Mr. Proby?"

My father nodded with something that struck me as closer to ordinary satisfaction than any real pride and gave the answer he always gave: "Louis will be a doctor."

"I'll be learning anatomy," I said, "and from the sound of your man's story, he could use to study some too."

Though my delivery was stiff-I wasn't used to talking with grown men and certainly unaccustomed to offering humor-my father and Rabbit appeared to find my comment funny enough. Both laughed hard, Rabbit even rubbing the side of his sizable belly. But Rabbit stopped his laugh in the middle of his throat, dampening it to a low growl and then cutting it off altogether. He moved closer, almost into us, and whispered to my father that one of the men, the one with the blue bandana hanging from his jumper, had brought a gun on the job and bragged that he was going to use it on the superintendent.

My father smiled and nodded, as though he had just been told another connubial joke. Then he cracked all the knuckles of his right hand, working one finger at a time, base to tip, and started over toward the men.

I moved to follow, but Rabbit pressed a large palm flat against my chest. The dampness of his hand soaked into my shirt, its warmth spreading like a stain. I could smell his sweat, more bitter than sharp, like the rind rather than the flesh of a lemon.

Rabbit shook his head, almost with just his eyes. "Your father knows what to do. Let him handle his business."

The large man let me edge a few inches to one side so that I could see around him, but he stayed close, his hand ready to stall me again. And then he asked me question after question about my mother, sisters, and my little brother, whose name was Powell but whom everyone called Pal.

I murmured the answers with all the politeness I could muster but without much concentration. "Just fine," I said. "Yes, Luta's still crazy for basketball, playing it or watching it, but especially playing it." "Emily sure is as pretty as ever and, yes, sweet as sugar, too." "No, he still won't dress his own game, says his stomach won't take it."

As I muttered my responses in turn with Rabbit's questions, I watched and listened to my father make his way down the line of working men. He paused before each, commenting on the fine work of one, the marriage of another's daughter, the well-being of the next man's wife or fiancée.

"If you ask me," said Rabbit, "a boy's old enough to hunt, a boy's old enough to skin."

I had to look directly at him then and laugh, because that was the same thought I'd been keeping to myself for a good year or more. "I'll agree with you there," I said.

When I put my eyes back to my father, he was standing right in front of the man with the blue bandana, just one step up the ditch grade, making a remark about the shovel the man was using, asking to see it, looking with concern at its handle as he took it from the man's hands.

Then, cottonmouth fast, he swung full force and hit the man across the side of his face with the flat of the shovel. The man did not raise a hand, nor did he duck or reel back. He dropped straight, face down in the ditch water. A spotted salamander skittered away as my father reached under the injured man's jumper, swiftly removed the revolver as though he'd known just where it was hidden, and tucked it under his own shirt. None of the men reacted.

Rabbit stopped interviewing me then, and together we watched my father continue down the line, spending a particularly long time congratulating one older man on the acceptance of his grandson into a Negro divinity school up north.

Before he walked over to pull the fallen man's face from the brackish water, Rabbit smiled at me and said, "I told you he knew what to do."

My father did not pay the would-be assailant another look on his way back to the cart. As we followed the tracks home through stands of hardwood and then pine, all he said was, "Don't mention any of that business to your mother."

* * *

My early training in science would, as you'd expect, include lectures on the importance of scientific method, of developing and testing hypotheses, of experiment as the crucial successor to observation if not sometimes its antecedent.

Yet I have kept into my deep old age-at first in a desk drawer, later in a thoughtless cardboard box on the shelf of a seldom-used closet, and now on the corner of the work desk made from a single cypress plank-my notebooks on the natural history of Cypress Parish, begun the year before the great flood.

During spans of my life, I have gone a decade or more without leafing through them. At other ages, I read through most of the entries at least every year or two, laughing at my youthful attempts at accuracy through thoroughness, as though quantity could substitute for wisdom, an avalanche of fact and physical description for the profundity of the single telling detail, every aspect of a thing's appearance for its essence.

My entry on the armadillo dwelled, for three paragraphs, on the animal's hoof-like footprints. It mentions that the front foot is four-toed but fails to describe its awkward delicacy in contrast to the more plodding five-toed back foot. I troubled myself to mention, perhaps because at the time I thought the observation original, that the insect-eater was the only local animal to dishevel ant hills. I didn't mention, because I didn't yet know, that the armadillo is the culprit behind the tenacious prevalence of leprosy in Louisiana and eastern Texas.

More egregious, the entry mentioned the animal's peculiar shell only in passing and failed to suggest its function-protection-at all. I missed the point. Perhaps the whole project had missed the point. The flood would hide the natural world only by water. Over months, that water would be sucked into the earth or spill back into the river that had carried it or roll over the plane of sunken earth to add harmlessly to the volume of the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the species of tree and amphibian and moss and bayou snake that I labored to describe are today endangered. But even today, no plant or animal named in my notebooks belongs only to the past.

It is the other world, with its precise and unrepeatable con- figuration of human relationships and man-made things, that I pain myself to remember because I failed to record it, even to myself, as significant. It is the human world that was proved ephemeral by the shimmering sea that had been land.

* * *

We were still living in a yellow-brown house on block ten of Cypress's numbered grid of streets. Majestic Mustard was what the paint can named the color. It was the finest house we had ever lived in, but we were poised to move into one even bigger and better.

From the year I was born until the day we moved to Cypress, my family lived in logging camps. Most of the time, we lived in one cabin or another, though for a stretch we lived in a converted passenger car parked on a side track. After my father made camp superintendent, we most often managed to get two cabins, which my father set twelve or so feet apart and connected with scrap lumber into a three-room house, one room a kitchen to which my father would attach a small porch for washing. Clean water-water to fill the basin and drinking pail-had to be carried, a hundred feet when we were lucky, five hundred feet at other times, though finding dirty water was never a problem in our part of the country.


Excerpted from THE UNNATURAL HISTORY OF CYPRESS PARISH by ELISE BLACKWELL Copyright © 2007 by Elise Blackwell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Unnatural History of Cypress Parish 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My brother is alive. Lets just say that if I had made a different descision last night, that wouldn't be the case. He is the leader of the Spartan army, Jordan.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
The skies are darkening as the weather service predicts a huge type 4 maybe even 5 hurricane to hammer the gulf coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. The media focuses in on what Katrina might do to New Orleans, but ignores the impact on some of the other locales like Cypress Parish. Nonagenarian Louis Proby waits for the perfect storm to come ashore from his home as he reflects on the storm of the previous century that destroyed Cypress Parish in 1927.----------------- He was seventeen years old, one of four offspring of Cypress Parish's lumber company superintendent, wheeler dealer William Proby. Louis understood that his dad¿s position meant he ran the Parish also. Louis, at his father¿s coaxing, planned to become a doctor, but currently was making money chauffeuring lumber company official Charles Segrist to and from New Orleans he got the job because of his dad, but enjoys the side benefits of partying at the clubs. However, though a teen, it is the plan and execution that his father condoned for a fee that haunts him most eight decades later. The plan included blowing up the Cypress Parish levee to release the floodwaters there that will destroy that backwater in order to keep New Orleans safe, but the teen begins to believe the destruction of his home is unnecessary, but only money matters.--------------- Using Katrina as a hook, THE UNNATURAL HISTORY OF CYPRESS PARISH is a fabulous look back to Bayou politics and history during the Huey Long era through the filter of a senior citizen waiting out the latest storm of the century. The story line is character driven as Louis knows what he lost when the levees were dynamited besides a home he thinks back to Nanette and what could have been if only the power brokers including his father were not greedy. Readers will appreciate his reflections on life in 1920s Louisiana.------------- Harriet Klausner