Jewell Parker Rhodes, who has earned legions of fans with her masterful fiction, launched her career as an award-winning novelist with Voodoo Dreams, based on the legend of New Orleans's most famous voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau.
Voodoo Season, Rhodes's fourth novel, revisits the mystical landscape of Louisiana, but now, for the first time, the celebrated author of historical fiction presents a mystery set in the here and now. This is the story of Marie Levant, a great-great granddaughter of Marie Laveau and a medical doctor compelled by unseen forces to relocate from Chicago to her family's native home. This is New Orleans, where the slave-holding past merges with the twenty-first century, a place where women of color are still being abused, raped, and -- even more horrifying -- rendered "un-dead," zombie-like Sleeping Beauties. The Quadroon Balls of yesterday are a present reality and only Marie Levant can untangle the medical mystery.
A smart modern-day heroine, unafraid of her sexuality, Marie Levant extends the Laveau legacy of spiritual empowerment, prophetic vision, and voodoo possession. Voodoo Season is a fresh and original work of fiction that is a magical womanist tale of mystery and power.
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About the Author
Jewell Parker Rhodes, an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction, including Voodoo Dreams, Season (formerly titled Voodoo Season) Yellow Moon (formerly titled Yellow Moon), Magic City, Douglass' Women, Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors, and The African American Guide to Writing and Publishing Nonfiction, is the Virginia G. Piper Chair in Creative Writing and artistic director of the Virginia G. Piper Center in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Read an Excerpt
Voodoo SeasonA Marie Laveau Mystery
By Jewell Parker Rhodes
AtriaCopyright © 2005 Jewell Parker Rhodes
All right reserved.
She was cloaked in mist -- soft as silk, cold as ice, darker than the bayou on a moonless night. "Marie." She was blind in a world without parameters, borders. Only sound. Raw feelings.
She couldn't breathe.
"Marie" -- a dry, reedy call; then, mournful, like a keening from a wounded animal or a lost child. "Marie."
The mist grew heavy, the weight of the world was pulling her down, sucking out air, life -- pulling her down into a swamp of memories:
She, just ten, watching a man writhing on the floor, a snake circling his neck; she, a woman grown, strapped to a tree, scars crisscrossing her back; she, an old woman singing, "Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you moan"; she, trembling, diving into thick, heady water, catfish brushing her thighs; then, a mother, screaming, giving birth, as she, the babe, slipped out, swimming downstream in a rush of water, a bloodied, blue-red membrane covering her face.
Except she was none of these. She was in her apartment, in her own bed. With a man she'd picked up at Cajun House. And she wasn't cold; she sweated from the heat of his body, from his hands stroking her breasts, his pelvis rubbing against hers.
Was she dreaming? Hallucinating?
"A haunting," her friend, Ellie, would say. "Spirits out of place. Talking." Marie didn't believe in ghosts. She was a doctor, objective. Good in a crisis.
"Marie." A soft chant.
"Marie." The mist cleared. Drums resounded and she swayed in a dress shimmering with rainbows. "Marie." Arms outstretched, flames spiraled from her fingertips. She felt herself rise. Snakes slithered across the floor. A sweet voice counterpointed the drums: "Home. Let's go home." A burst of light, a swirling of fireflies.
"Marie." Hands tugged at her skirt, pulling her down. "Heal me"; "No, heal me." Faces: black, brown, white -- some staring reverently, some desperately, some enviously. Features fading: no eyes, only mouths. Wailing, screaming: "No, me. Heal me"; "Maman Marie, please. Heal me."
Fingers plucked at her skin, ripping her skirt, tugging, threatening to trample her down to the ground.
"Sssh," a voice murmured, a tongue licking her ear.
"Sssh," she echoed, chest heaving.
Mist pressed against her eyes, breasts, abdomen. Her back arched. Mouth open, a mist flew inside her -- surrounding, squeezing her heart.
Something -- someone -- rocked inside her, consuming her from the inside out. Eating her whole. "Get out. Damn you, get out." Arms flailing, she bucked against the weight inside her. "Get out." Shadows flew out of her mouth.
"Heh, you're not going crazy on me, are you? Not getting wild, are you?"
He had a lovely smile. Skin, smooth as espresso; eyes, obsidian black.
"You wish," she exhaled, trembling. "Get me a drink. Please."
He reached for her warm, waterlogged scotch.
"No, cold. There's beer in the fridge." She didn't watch him go. Didn't watch his panther strut. She'd hoped he'd be a good-enough lover so she wouldn't dream, hallucinate, or whatever the hell her mind was doing.
She reached for her robe, catalogued her vitals -- pulse elevated, breath ragged; her hands, the top of her lip, moist with sweat. Always the same. Same dream. Same moment of awakening.
Marie shuddered. The dream always seemed real.
Crotch moist, she'd wanted to swallow him whole. Wanted to be loved so well, she didn't have any weird dreams. She'd thought about saying "no" to a condom, hoping flesh upon flesh would banish dreams. Hauntings.
But she knew better. Knew how sperm impregnated egg, seen cells dividing in a petri dish. Seen, too, a virus leeching on cells, devouring them, destroying in its wake. Seen plenty of young men, as beautiful as him, turn skeletal. Eyes sunken into bone. Seen young women, jaws slack, transfixed by nothingness.
"Brought you a Coors. Bien?"
"Brought you a wet towel, too. Heated it up in the microwave."
"This a sushi bar?"
"Non. Just a little courtesy. Thought you'd like to clean yourself off."
Lord, he was good-looking. "How old are you?"
"Just a boy. You've got to go."
In the dim, smoke-filled bar, she'd missed his youth. She'd been focused on the sway of his hips, the tilt of his head. Been focused on her need to be held.
"All evening, I was man enough. Plenty, I'd say."
Untying her robe, he kissed her neck. With her best tea towel, he gently wiped her breasts, abdomen, between her thighs. "Tres belle," he murmured. "Tres belle."
She stood awkwardly, her arms dangling. He sat on the bed, his towel raised like an offering.
"You should go," she said. "I've got to get to work."
"Maybe." She stared at the tangled sheets. Egyptian cotton scented with semen and the boy's smell. Musty with a hint of jasmine. Not a harsh thing about him. Just good-looking and sweet.
His pants on, she blushed, remembering how she'd kissed his lean torso, let her hands roam inside cool linen, untied his drawstring belt.
"Got any money? Un peu? A little?"
"Out." She held up his shoes, socks.
He winked, tucked his footwear beneath his arm and swept up his shirt from the floor. "Au'voir."
She listened for the click of the door's latch.
On the nightstand was a pack of Gauloises. She didn't smoke, but the blue package seemed as exotic as a black man speaking French.
She stepped onto her narrow balcony -- wrought iron twisted into vines, leaves, a riotous garden with snakes that, depending upon the light, seemed to slither and weave from one end to the other.
Not quite dawn. Stars twinkled bravely. The skyline fanned out like a lady ready for slumber on a chaise longue. Fog rolled in from the Gulf. Later, the city would be hot, steaming. Bodies would begin swaying, stripping away clothes, ordering bourbon, another hearing of "When the Saints Go Marching In," 'til it was dusk, mosquitoes rising, and time for another nightly round of dancing, loving, dying in the city. It both fascinated and repelled her.
She felt she was back in time. No modern buildings, no high-rises. Only church spirals. Roofs with lattice trims. Gargoyles facing south. She liked the intricate warren of European-like streets. She'd been drawn to the top-floor apartment, just off the historic Quarter. Her rent was outrageous, but she liked the view, the scent of fish, beignets from the Cafe du Monde, the odor of alcohol, and too many bodies pressed into a too-tight space. She lit a cigarette, inhaled, and felt like the mist was inside her again. She pressed the cigarette against the rail. Sparks flew.
The boy was on the street, still barefoot, bare-chested. His shirt and shoes were tied together like a hobo sack, swinging from his hand. His feet moved -- two steps forward, hips dipping, sliding side to side, and she knew he was hearing the zydeco beat. The driving staccato, the unrestrained energy. He was hearing an intense two-step as old as the cobblestone. A rhythm built on the backs of slaves.
When she'd met him, he'd said, "Dance," his hand outstretched. No, "Let's?" just a command: "Dance." She'd clutched his hand and swayed to the zydeco for hours, drank juleps, and, for a while, forgot she was a northerner down South. Forgot she was lonely. Out of her league. A battered young catfish, belly-up, flailing for air.
"It was good, wasn't it?" he called up.
"Bien. Tres bien," she said, and he smiled at her like a child given candy. She should've shouted: "No, a bad dream." But she didn't want to be heartless. Too many men had accused her of that.
She shook her head. "What's yours?"
"Jacques," he called up. Then, he spun around, dancing, fingers snapping, butt shaking down Rue de Christi. Without looking back, he waved. Gave an extra jerk to his behind.
Somewhere a voice caroled: "Catfish. Buy. Price fine. Come and buy."
A child, no more than ten, wandered home from tap-dancing for tourists. Pop bottle caps were a poor boy's cleats. His shoes scraped and clicked. He yawned, rubbed his eyes.
Three transvestites, legs wobbly on stiltlike heels, arms linked, wigs slightly askew, giggled. A tired sailor stepped out of a bar, his blond curls matted beneath his sailor cap. A man gripped his buttocks and they stumbled into an embrace. Then, hand outstretched, the thick-necked man guided the sailor around a corner, into an alley. Up against the wall.
"Dance," Marie whispered, rueful. "Dance."
Somewhere a sax began a lament. Church bells rang, a wild cacophony from parish churches: 6:00 A.M. Sunday. Time for all good Catholics to repent.
Marie reached for another cigarette. What the hell. She was in a foreign land. New Orleans. Just words on a map. "Gateway to the Mississippi!" -- she'd been drawn like a moth to a flame. She should've gone to San Francisco. Kansas. Texas, even. Six months here and she couldn't have a climax without some will-o'wisp, some haint interfering, spoiling her body's pleasure.
Inexplicably, she started to cry. She hadn't cried since she was ten and discovered her mother dead in their attic apartment.
Furious, Marie wiped away tears.
Jacques zigzagged down the street's heart. His shirt, now loose, flapped like a sail.
She almost called out to him. What would she say? "Stop." "Don't leave." "I'm a stranger here."
Why hadn't she told him her name? Marie Levant. Yet, for most of her life, she'd been called Mary. Only one day in New Orleans, and the r became guttural. Plain Mary became Marie, spoken with the flair and accent reminiscent of her mother. "Ma-r-ie." Her mother had called her that: "Ma-r-ie. My little girl."
"Aw, Ma. Dearest Ma." She exhaled bitter smoke.
The sun crowned like a baby, spreading blood across the horizon. Blackbirds dove, screeching like their feathers were on fire.
Where was she?
"Don't you know, child? City of Sin."
She spun around. Her apartment was empty.
Yet as surely as she was alive now, breath harsh, blood rushing beneath skin, wishing she were simple enough to keep a man -- to enjoy, longer than a night, the charms of a boy named Jacques -- someone -- something -- chanted her name:
Copyright © 2005 by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Excerpted from Voodoo Season by Jewell Parker Rhodes Copyright © 2005 by Jewell Parker Rhodes.
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.
Reading Group Guide
Group Reading Guide
by Jewell Parker Rhodes
- In the journal of Louis DeLavier, the man who loved Marie Laveau and chronicled her story, Laveau is quoted as saying, "A story should begin at the beginning. But in this story, the middle is the beginning." In that same way, so begins the novel Voodoo Season. It starts with "The Middle." Discuss the significance of the events that occur in relation to titles of each subsection: "The Middle," "The Beginning," "Another Beginning," "The End," and finally, "Never Ending."
- Marie Levant, the heroine, seems to resist the telltale signs that she is connected to the spirit world. On page 47 the narrator states, "Marie knew she often noticed things about other people -- she was smart, intuitive. But that didn't mean she had sight." Nevertheless, everyone -- DuLac, Reneaux, El -- believes in her powers. Why do you think she is so reluctant to accept her gift? Were you convinced of Marie's gift? Explain.
- New Orleans, "The City of Sin," has long been known for its association with voodoo. Stereotypes abound, describing voodoo as "barbaric, exhibitionism without the spiritual." At the end of the novel, having experienced the many faces of voodoo firsthand, Marie vows to "spend her life letting black people, all people, know that voodoo was loving and good, not hurtful and evil" (page 259). Discuss your perceptions/knowledge of voodoo before reading the book. In what ways have they changed or stayed the same as a result of what you've read in this novel?
- Throughout the book there is a paradoxical tension that exists between the old world versus the new, Catholicism versus voodoo, good versus evil, sinners versus saints, slaves versus masters, revenge versus love. How does Marie negotiate these boundaries/territories and eventually make peace among these contradictions?
- As an interning doctor-to-be, Marie is an independent woman who had to raise herself when her mother died and foster care failed her. As an adult, she claims that "all she ever needed was sex, not love." Nevertheless, love is a necessity. Explain the ways in which love eventually finds its way into Marie's life.
- As the first novel in a contemporary trilogy (inspired by the historical novel, Voodoo Dreams), there are many things that still remain unresolved. Evaluate the loose ends. Imagine how the author might proceed in the last installment of the trilogy. What do you think will become of Marie Levant? What about her friends/followers at Charity Hospital? And the newborn of Marie-Claire who Marie was so determined to rescue?
- While the book hinges on the discovery of who is responsible for the series of murders, the book is also about Marie's self-discovery. To be sure, Marie admits to Reneaux, "I've been hiding. Time to grow up. Discover who I am" (page 144). From what has she been hiding? How does her self-discovery aid in solving the mystery? Do you think she is content with what she has discovered about herself? Her mother? Her family legacy?
- As a preface to "The Beginning," the reader is allowed a glimpse of Marie's journal in which she wonders, "How was I to know they were all in my blood? Seven generations. All of them -- whispering, punishing, crying to get out." In fact, blood is a recurring image throughout the novel and the theme of "mixed blood" resonates. Discuss why blood, in relation to heritage, can be a mark of pride or shame, particularly within the African American community.
- In many ways, this novel is a testament to the magical strength of women in general, black women in particular. As Marie's African ancestor, Membe, affirms, "Life be a celebration. Being a woman be just fine." Discuss the male versus female power dynamic that exists in Voodoo Season. If you were asked to keep score in this installment's battle of the sexes, who would be the winner and why?
- Initially, Marie is drawn to New Orleans for some inexplicable reason. Inevitably she realizes "that coming to New Orleans had been her fa, her fate" (page 185). Do you believe that it was fate that brought Marie to the city of sin? Do you believe people have the power to change their fate? Is one's destiny written in stone?
- Marie Levant descends from a long line of women who were well-versed in the ways of voodoo. As Marie Laveau asserts, "Voodoo is worth passing on" (page 184). From what you learned and know about the faith, do you agree? Why or why not?
Book Club Tips
- Visit the author's own website at jewellparkerrhodes.com for her bio and upcoming event information
- Add a mysterious ambience by hosting your reading group as a masquerade party in the New Orleans tradition of Mardi Gras. You can order masks for under $3 per mask at this site: nightmarefactory.com/mardigras.html#feather. Or, have readers purchase their own. Serve festive drinks and unmask the fun!
- Host your group meeting at a New Orleans style restaurant or café and enjoy heaping bowls of gumbo or beignets and café au lait. Or, if you're in the mood, you can find a good gumbo recipe at: gumbopages.com/food/gumbo.html, and try making a pot of this spicy New Orleans favorite.
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