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Where the River Bends
"And the Truth Breaks"
Published by Ontario Review Press in 2002
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2003
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I drove home and laid back in my hammock to read the book that my friend, Kevin, sent me which he said was written by someone who grew up in New Orleans. The very first sentence had three errors of fact in it. Over and over in Raine's book, bland cliches pinch-hit for idiosyncratic insights into real places and real people. The title "Where the River Bends" begs to be completed by the phrase "And the Truth Breaks." Breaks like in bent so much that it fractures into untruth and disgraceful lies - truth in drag.
Here's the three errors of fact as I saw them. First sentence of book goes, "The night of the rape is a typical new Orleans night when, even in October, you can break a sweat standing still well after the sun goes down." The facts as I know them, having lived in New Orleans almost twice as long as Raine, would go this way. First, a typical night in New Orleans in October is dry and cool. Second, rarely ever will you sweat in New Orleans after the sun goes down during any evening of the year. The heat of the afternoon will dry the humidity in the air. As the temperature goes up to high 80s, even 100 percent humidity will drop to 50 or 60 percent, which is dry for New Orleans. Third, if you stand still on any night in New Orleans, you will feel comfortable if you're a native. After living four years in New England where you need a sweater or jacket outside during the summer evenings, I love New Orleans where you can wear short sleeved shirts or a simple tee shirt at night and feel comfortable outside.
What could possess me to continue to read a book wherein the writer commits so many errors of fact in the first sentence? Only my friendship for Kevin could make me proceed to the next sentence, much less the rest of the book. I put a clothespin on my nose and continued. Oh my, a few sentences down, another ersatz fact about New Orleans.
[page 1] . . . a pink butterfly poised at the edge of the churning, brown Mississippi. From this sport, the view is wide and distant over the notoriously treacherous waters.
Sounds like what you've read about the Mississippi River, doesn't it? Only problem is that in October the river is placid, calm, and more blue than brown. And, except for a few weeks of heavy Spring runoff from the center of the country during which the river is churning brown and might be treacherous due to the high currents, the rest of the year the river is not treacherous for swimming, although everyone says it is. I know this from my own experience growing up about two blocks from the river in Westwego, across from Audubon Park, the area Raine is describing for us, and on any given summer day as I walked the banks of the river, I could see kids in their early teens swimming in the river. They dove from pilings into the river and had a great time. Many of them swam across the river and back from that point. To my knowledge I never heard of a kid drowning in the river. Not exactly what I would call treacherous. If there were any "legendary eddies and undertows" or "whirlpools [that] will suck under even the most powerful swimmers" in the river, these kids would have never survived even one day's swimming in their favorite swimming hole.
There is in fact a beach called Paulina Beach upriver from New Orleans where I took my teenaged boys for a swim one July 4th. Families were picnicking on the banks of the Mississippi and swimming with their children in the water as large ocean bound freighters passed each other a few hundred yards or so away in the middle of the river. An awesome sight. Nobody drowned that day either.
Here's another generalization that does not pass the stench test:
[page 4] In the South, in a city as racially polarized as New Orleans, blacks and whites do not often mix.
This sounds reasonable, but the problem is that New Orleans has always had blacks and whites living in intermixed neighborhoods since I was a kid. My cousin on Tulane Avenue back in the 1940s had black friends that we played with. My uncle lived on Carondelet and some of his neighbors were black. And during Mardi Gras season, the blacks and the whites really mix in a great celebration of equality. Anyone can mask and be a king or a queen or rub shoulders with anyone else on this annual season of fun and frivolity. There were and still are few Southern cities as unpolarized racially as New Orleans. We have never had a race riot in New Orleans to my knowledge. May have had one years earlier, inspired by carpetbaggers, but that was before my time. In New Orleans the races mix for work, for carnival, for jazz fest, on Bourbon St., in Preservation Hall, and for just about every activity, and probably more so than in the other cities of the South to this day. Of course, I may be wrong about this. I don't know those other cities as well as I do New Orleans. But if I wrote as a native of Atlanta such half-truths about Atlanta as Raine did of New Orleans, I expect the natives there would get restless. New Orleans did not "smolder with anger" as he writes on page 63, but rather burned with good times for blacks and whites during most of its history. It was this burning with good times that led to creation of America's classical music, jazz, in the streets, hearts, and songs of New Orleans.
Lest my good readers think that I'm being too harsh on Raine, here's a clip from a review of his book that appeared in our local paper this past Sunday (May 26, 2002) in the Times-Picayune by the Book Editor, Susan Larson:
But Barry Raine knows how he reacts in a challenging situation. He survived, so he must have done the right thing. And he survived to write about it. But it would have been better if he'd written the whole truth rather than this self-serving and dishonest memoir, with its troubling and unacknowledged factual changes and omissions.
Here is a writer who works for the newspaper and could look up all the matters of fact about the rape and many of the other events portrayed in this memoir as facts by its author. When she did, she found large distortions of the truth by the author throughout the memoir.
Another distortion that I would like to clear up as it involves my parents and ancestors' language, Cajun French.
[page 36] I described growing up in a strong Catholic Cajun culture, a world made insular by the ethnic insistence upon speaking French. Not a pure Parisian French, but a patois that was augmented by many English words, many of which were Frenchified.
First thing is that I grew up in a "strong Catholic culture" and didn't know I was a Cajun till I took a trip to Novia Scotia [neé Acadia] and began to check into my ancestors. I found out that my maternal grandmother only learned to speak English when her children came home from school in the 1910s speaking English. My ancestors did not insist on speaking French, they spoke their native language from their ancestors, the Brittany potato farmers that settled Acadia in the 1600s, landing in Port Royal in 1605, 15 years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. At that time each part of France spoke a different kind of French. Napoleon hadn't been invented yet. During his reign, Napoleon Bonaparte decreed that all France would henceforth speak only the language spoken by Parisians. Thus the Cajuns, who had already departed France by then, not only speak a pure French, but one that doesn't exist in France anymore. Cajun is definitely not a patois, which is defined by my Cassel's as, "a non-standard dialect of a district". The standard dialect of French in Louisiana where the Cajuns lived was what they spoke, and they spoke it in the pure form they received from their ancestors. Yes, it was augmented by English words, but what he means by the Frenchified stuff, I'm not sure. I know this happened with names. My last name is an Anglicized, Frenchified German name. It went from "Matern" to "Matherne" pronounced "matern" in German and Cajun to Matherne with the "th" sound pronounced in English.
[page 48] . . . the suburbs on the West Bank, where many people, including my parents, fled the increasingly crime-ridden, honky tonk streets of the French Quarter with its topless bars and sidewalk Martini stands and the eerie, mugger-filled streets of the adjacent Fauborg Marigny neighborhood.
Once more I must protest. I've walked these streets he's referring to for over 50 years and never once saw a crime, a mugging, or a Martini stand (Hurricane stands, yes). Today in 2002 the Fauborg Marigny is a place where folks from the suburbs, young urban professionals, move to when they want to flee the plastic suburbs of Metairie and the West Bank. And there they find Café Brazil, Snug Harbor, Bombay Club, and all sorts of delightful local musicians playing amidst great food and great people every night of the year. It's like the Left Bank of Paris and has much of the flavor of Paris with its bistros and music venues. His over-generalizing does my hometown a disservice and I feel compelled to correct the score on this.
[page 75] People who have never been victims of random violence assume that they can avoid danger and therefore be able to protect themselves in any situation.
Here Raine sounds like Carlos Castaneda when he was trying to rebut his teacher Don Juan Matus. Carlos said something like this, "But suppose you're walking down a street and there's a sniper with a high-powered telescope and rifle in the top of a tall building pointing at you. How could you be protected against that?" Don Juan's response was most instructive. He said, "I would not be walking down that street." Which man's thoughts would you like to be left with at the end of the day, Raine's or Don Juan's? It's your choice. You get to choose what streets to walk down and your safety depends on the thoughts you have as you walk down those streets. Safety is something that comes from within, rightly understood.
Finally, near the end of the book, I found something that I could agree with. What makes this interesting is that it expresses the opposite of an opinion he had stated earlier in the book, such in the page 4 quote above.
[page 89] . . . the city of New Orleans was more racially harmonious in the turbulent 1950s and 1960s than many other cities in the South.
Here's another blast leveled at his native city which deserves to be debunked.
[page 114] Lying several feet below sea level, situated in a sort of ever-expanding, elasticized bowl, New Orleans' contours change with frequent stirrings of the marsh gases below the earth's surface. Built on a depression, hurricane-prone New Orleans is one of the worst places to ride out the winds and potentially catastrophic floods that accompany all tropical storms.
Where do I start? So many errors and so little time. First New Orleans was not built on a depression, but on the top of thousands of years old former levees or banks of the Mississippi. The River Ridge, Metairie Ridge, and Gentilly Ridge follow those old levees. Outside of those levees, land was reclaimed from the swampy areas and the wonder is that natives found a way to build on the land at all. And successfully. New Orleans thus came to be bowl-shaped because the natural and man-made levees surround it to keep the sea and river water out. Large drainage pumps 17 feet in diameter that were built in 1899 still pump the heavy rains over the brim of the "bowl" to keep us from flooding. New Orleans had one general flood in 1927 when 15 inches of water fell and all the power went out. This was before emergency power generators were generally available at all the pumping stations. We are flat and have no flash floods like those that wash everything their path as the pummel down canyons in Arizona, California, Colorado and elsewhere.
Now for hurricanes. I rode out Hurricanes Betsy and Camille in New Orleans. I stayed up all night watching the flashing green lights of transformers sparking while 120 mph winds roared over head. Except for a levee break in Arabi that flooded homes, the rest of the city recovered in a few days. The long mouth of the Mississippi River acts as a natural barrier to the worst case scenario that newspapers and tv stations propagate each hurricane season which involves a hurricane coming up the mouth of the Mississippi towards New Orleans. Each time a hurricane has approached us this way, it either bounces off the to West, like Juan, or veers into the Biloxi areas like Camille or Georges. The slight rise of land on either side of the mouth of the river as it meanders to the Gulf causes the hurricane to veer away from the worse case scenario — like a beach ball encountering a slight ridge in the sand it’s rolling over will veer left or right. In my humble opinion, New Orleans is the safest place to ride out a hurricane. We are over a 100 miles from the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Compare that with Miami or Homestead, Florida, both of which sit exposed only miles from the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
In the last paragraph of the book, Raine says, "I moved away from New Orleans years ago. . ." He moved away from the reality of New Orleans but he kept his unreal cliched maps of New Orleans, which he has paraded out in this book. If you read this book, dear Reader, you will find only the psyche of Barry Raine described therein, not the city he purports to describe. The Big Easy tends to reject those of its citizens with psyches like that and send them packing for parts unknown. Only the best and most fun citizens stay behind. And, as we lucky few, we fortunate few, like to say, Laissez Bon Temps Roulez!
Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne
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